The U.S. News and World Report annual college rankings are a matter of great controversy. But from an article by Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post comes news that a mediocre college might be “great” when one looks at just one aspect of the college ranking:

The U.S. News ranking… has frustrated and angered many university administrators, who resent it when their school is reduced to one (poor) numerical figure.

The student engagement survey, abbreviated NSSE or “Nessie,” is higher education’s response.

Introduced 10 years ago by Indiana University researchers to counter to U.S. News‘s compilation, the survey has won buy-ins from 1,400 colleges, with about half that number participating each year. Rather than rank colleges in overall quality, it attempts to quantify through a battery of questions whether students at a particular school are actually learning: How often do you raise your hand in class? How many 20-page papers have you written? How often do you e-mail a professor? Each college is measured against similar institutions, and over time. But there is no overall ranking.

NSSE is an interesting resource. The trouble is that it’s still input-based, however. No matter how many 20-page papers students write, the NESSE ranking still doesn’t indicate how much the students learn or how well they do when they leave school.

This measure might be of limited use for parents and students when considering a college. Still, it’s one of the few data-driven measures of college quality to look at what students actually experience in college. Check out the 2009 NSSE ranking here.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer