best us colleges
University of Southern California is tied at fourth place for student engagement. Source: Shutterstock

International students should take note of the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education 2020 College Rankings published earlier this week. Examining four key areas – resources for effective teaching, engagement with students, graduate outcomes and learning environment – the ranking differs from other major league tables for its emphasis on students over research output.

Overall, the country’s Ivy League institutions were the best US colleges in the student-focused rankings.

At the top of the list is Harvard University, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, California Institute of Technology and Princeton University rounding up the top five.

But when it comes to student engagement, the Top 10 look significantly different:

Overall Rank College Engagement Outcomes Resources Environment
401-500 Dordt University 1 401-500 401-500 >600
401-500 Cedarville University 2 366 401-500 >600
170 Samford University 3 211 157 >600
18 University of Southern California 4 27 21 63
27 University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 4 18 69 233
32 University of Notre Dame 4 39 31 401-500
46 Purdue University West Lafayette 4 48 97 266
143 Brigham Young University-Provo 4 57 401-500 >600
167 Baylor University 4 244 183 401-500
>600 Oral Roberts University 4 >600 >600 107

Data for the ranking were sourced from the US government (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid (FSA), the College Scorecard, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Times Higher Education’s (THE) US Student Survey, the THE Academic Survey, and the Elsevier bibliometric dataset.

The engagement score, however, it’s mainly based on the results of the THE US Student Survey, which examines how connected students feel to their school, each other and the outside world. Representing 20 percent of the overall ranking, the data gathered here mostly focuses on issues like student engagement (seven percent), student recommendation (six percent), interaction with teachers and students (four percent) and number of accredited programmes (three percent).

An obvious takeaway from the Top 10 most engaging colleges is how the rankings in this area vary dramatically from their positions in other areas like outcomes. For example, Dordt University scores first spot in terms of engagement but is ranked at 401-500th for outcomes.

The reverse is also true. In the overall ranking; Princeton is at fifth spot but nearly didn’t make it to the top 500 (it held the 498th spot) on engagement. None of the schools in the Top 10 positions for engagement made it into the top 10 overall list. University of Southern California came the closest, ranking fourth for engagement and 18th overall.

Seven out of the top 10 most engaged colleges are religiously affiliated, including the top two on this list: Dordt University and Cedarville University. The remaining institutions are Samford University, the University of Notre Dame, Brigham Young University-Provo, Baylor University and Oral Roberts University, all of which hold strong spiritual missions.

These findings should serve as a useful reminder to students to be very granular in their use of rankings. If the top criteria in choosing a school is to create meaningful relationships, do not apply to the ones that rank highly overall, or base it on other major league tables which tend to be assessed mostly on their research output.

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