Monday, August 18, 2008

Harvard on the Prairie: The University of Nebraska at Omaha

By Richard Vedder

I am high on the University of Nebraska at Omaha this morning. It is on no one's list of America's great universities. Its students are relatively undistinguished, as is its faculty. Within NEBRASKA, it is not viewed as the local Harvard. Yet it had the guts to do something, albeit for its own self-interest, that I have been waiting to see: it bragged about the learning of its students --a radical, unacceptable idea amongst the cartels like the American Council of Education or the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities that define, informally to be sure, the standards of conduct among American schools.

UNO, as it styles itself, was one of 178 schools administering the Collegiate Learning Assessment last year, giving it to a purportedly random group of freshman and seniors. It reports that the CLA folks have informed it that it is first amongst all the schools in the improvement in test scores between the freshman and senior years --first in "value added" at the college level by the institution.

I very much doubt that UNO leads the nation in learning, if for no other reason only a small percentage of schools administered the CLA test --and it is possible to manipulate the results if it is administered in a non-random fashion. But I think it is high time that colleges measure learning and report on it, and if UNO gets a competitive advantage from this, good for them. The test may be flawed, it may be given at only a small sample of America's colleges and universities, but it does measure something positive, and, according to UNO, it was given at such institutions as Duke, the University of Texas at Austin, the Universiy of Michigan, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill --all allegedly good schools.

This gets me to my second point du jour. The "good" schools in reality are probably quite different than the ones that US NEWS or university presidents claim are good. We at CCAP, in conjunction with Forbes, have published our own college rankings (see or that emphasize student satisfaction with instruction, post-graduate success, etc. --outcomes more than "reputation" or inputs. We find that Cornell College in Iowa is really better than Cornell University, or that Wabash College is better than Dartmouth, Stanford, Penn, or Washington University in St. Louis. Cornell and Wabash colleges seem to care about their undergraduate students, and have a good environment in which to learn.

We may be wrong in our assessment of schools, but I bet we are closer to right than the reputational type surveys that dominate the discussion. And UNO's action puts the heat on other schools to PROVE that their kids are learning. If the school doesn't like the CLA, give some other test showing students gained in some dimension: knowledge, critical thinking, civic engagement --SOMETHING valuable. Universities are about knowledge --lets gets some knowlege about universities themselves.

1 comment:

Peter Zakin said...

Professor Vedder,

I sincerely respect your efforts to provide an alternative to US News and World Report, but having read the new Forbes rankings and reviewed them on our company blog (, I cannot but be disappointed by the attempt. I know that the argument, by now you will find trite, but i fail to understand how and who's who in america are applicable to college rankings. I agree with you that it is important for college rankings--if they must exist--to represent the perspectives and experiences of college students. Theoretically, their reviews of professors should be crucial to that end. Nevertheless, I just cannot understand how could be perceived by you and your colleagues as legitimate data from which to base a study.

I respect your efforts but I feel that something is wildly amiss--or perhaps, I have misunderstood....