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Bresciani: ND schools rank strong nationally

Higher education continues to be a hot topic around the country, with ever more media coverage, blog posts, ranking publications and editorial pundits weighing in.

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In this environment, families trying to evaluate higher education institutions are understandably challenged to evaluate universities based on factors important to them. Approaches to providing rankings, for example, range widely from subjective to objective measures, and consumers may often not understand those important differences.

Subjective measures provide the opportunity for individuals attending or working at a given campus to have a direct role in reported findings. In other words, there’s no “spin” on the evaluations — what’s reported are frank first-person perspectives.

On the other hand, the subjective approach is most often used by for-profit organizations. While provocative, it can lack in balance and can lead readers to conclusions that may not accurately reflect the performance and student experiences at an institution.

An illustration of both the up and down sides of a largely subjective approach are the rankings published by U.S. News and World Report. Historically, most colleges and universities participated in its survey because for consumers, it was the most widely available ranking of higher education institutions.

However, participation in that survey has changed in recent years as concerns have grown regarding the methodologies, and the potential for responding colleges and universities to “game” the survey. Those concerns have led to a major decline in the number of higher education institutions willing to respond to the survey.

What U.S. News and World Report doesn’t publicly share is that the largest weight in their evaluation process is an annual national survey of college and university presidents for their opinions of other higher education institutions. I would want to assume that most presidents take the task very seriously, complete the survey with good intentions, and check “no opinion” if they don’t have a basis to evaluate. But the methodological flaw is that we have no means to be sure of that.

That all said, many of our state’s colleges and universities, such as Valley City State University, are climbing in their U.S. News and World Report rankings. In fact, VCSU has, for the past five years, ranked as the best or second best of its tier for our region of the country.

At the other end of the spectrum, a purely objective measure of higher education institutions is produced by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.

A federally coordinated evaluation, the Carnegie Commission uses audited institutional data, and classifies campuses solely by confirmed data and quantifiable accomplishments. Critics fairly enough complain that doing so takes away the opportunity to reflect personal tastes, experiences and impressions. That limitation aside, in North Dakota we’re fortunate to enjoy two universities at the highest tiers of Carnegie Commission rankings. The University of North Dakota ranks in the Carnegie Commission’s second highest tier of “Research University/High Research.” In that tier are some of the best private and public universities in the nation such as Clemson University, Kansas State University, Oklahoma State University and the University of Montana.

North Dakota State University falls in the Carnegie Commission’s highest tier, that of “Research University/Very High Research.” The nation’s best 108 private and public universities make up that tier, which represents the top 2 percent of all higher education institutions in the country.

And there are ranking methodologies, such as Washington Monthly, that blend the two approaches in what many argue to be the best balance. Washington Monthly uses a combination of objective institutional data and subjective assessments. North Dakota is well represented in their rankings as well. In particular, North Dakota State College of Science is ranked nationally as the third-best community college in the nation.

Obviously, the approaches to rankings are very different. But the good news is that regardless of the approach, never before have North Dakotans had access in our state to institutions at nationally competitive rankings like our colleges and universities are now achieving.

Even better, North Dakotans are not alone in recognizing the affordability, access and high quality of our college and university system. Some of the best and brightest young people in other states are in record numbers coming to North Dakota and enrolling in our colleges and universities, and staying in North Dakota after graduation to take their first jobs and start their families.

In a state with too few young people to support even our current economy, that’s critical to realizing our newly emerging economic potentials.

Bresciani is the president of North Dakota State University.