College Traits and Learning Outcomes

November 19, 2010

“When it comes to student learning, what institutions do matters more than what they are.” That’s the header on a section of an article in today’s Inside Higher Education.

The reference is to a study by Patrick T. Terenzini and Hyun Kyoung Ro, from Pennsylvania State University’s College of Education.

The Inside Higher Education summary of the research is worth quoting at length:  “The
study examined a wide range of often-used descriptors of colleges — large/small, public/private, selective/open admissions, etc. — and a set of practices used by institutions, and sought to determine which correlated more closely to the success of a large group of engineering students.

“The researchers found that internal institutional practices — the use of student-centered teaching approaches, the extent of students’ involvement in non-engineering clubs, and the like — were far more likely than the type of institution to determine the level of student outcomes. Or, as Terenzini put it, “what institutions do is more important than who or what they are.”

“That finding should make college leaders realize that they have more sway over student outcomes than they often tend to think, the study suggests. But it also has implications, the researchers suggest, for policy makers, who often overemphasize the importance of certain institutional characteristics, like those emphasized in college rankings.

“”[T]he findings fairly clearly point to the predictive impotence of some of the most widely used indicators of ‘institutional quality’ (e.g., selectivity and mission),” the authors write. “This study suggests that what colleges and universities ‘are’ (in terms of their conventional characteristics) is less useful than what they ‘do’ internally (e.g., how they organize themselves and operate structurally and programmatically) in identifying educationally effective institutions and student experiences…. [E]ducationally effective practices reviewed … are as likely (perhaps more likely) to be in use at less prestigious campuses as at their ‘elite’ counterparts. Thus, the common budget-allocation practices used in most state legislatures that privilege flagship campuses may have disadvantageous consequences for the undergraduates (and their parents) who attend other campuses in a state’s system. Moreover, administrators’ and public policy makers’ searches for specific ‘best practices’ may be short-sighted. The decisions they make — and the resources they allocate — may benefit from more refined and systemic views of the colleges and universities for which these leaders are responsible.””



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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