An Alternative Definition of Quality of Undergraduate College Education: Toward Usable Knowledge for Improvement

By Nodrvall, Robert C.; Braxton, John M. | Journal of Higher Education, September-October 1996 | Go to article overview

An Alternative Definition of Quality of Undergraduate College Education: Toward Usable Knowledge for Improvement


Nodrvall, Robert C., Braxton, John M., Journal of Higher Education


The 1980s saw a spate of reports focused on the improvement of the quality of undergraduate college education. Major reports included those issued by the study group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education [31], the American Association of Colleges' Integrity in the College Curriculum [3], and the National Endowment for the Humanities' To Reclaim a Legacy [5]. Although the flow of reports has abated in the 1990s, the issue of improving the quality of undergraduate college education remains. What also remains is a growing interest among the public in discerning the comparative quality of undergraduate institutions. The rankings of colleges in various categories each year in US News and World Report is a response to this growing public interest. Another response is the growth of unconventional college guides that provide "inside" perspectives on institutions that go beyond the more descriptive summaries in the traditional college guides such as Barron's Profiles of American Colleges and Lovejoy's College Guide.

The growing interest in comparative college quality among the public is premised upon two desires. The first is the desire to obtain a good bargain for the money spent on higher education, which has become more important as the costs of higher education have accelerated. The second is the desire of many students to obtain a degree from the most prestigious institution of higher education possible, because the prestige of one's undergraduate institution is seen as facilitating success later in life. High prestige institutions are seen as worth the high costs of attendance.

Whereas the public may often frame the issue of "quality" in terms of which school is "best," the various reports on the quality of undergraduate college education have as their goal an improved system of higher education to serve society's needs. If the quality of undergraduate education is to be improved, then quality must be defined in some way that provides useful information for the development of institutional policy to institute such improvement [13].

Traditional Approaches to Defining Academic Quality

Three customary approaches to addressing the question of quality in undergraduate higher education are the reputational approach, the resources approach, and the value-added approach. The reputational approach defines quality in terms of a college's or university's rank in the pecking order of institutions [2]. The US News and World Report annual rating of undergraduate institutions is a good example of the reputational method of appraising quality or excellence: the higher an institution's perceived place in the institutional pecking order, the higher the quality of the institution. A major problem with the reputational approach is that it is not clear whether the various persons who rank institutions are using the same criteria of evaluation, and even if the criteria are specified, the question arises whether the persons doing the ranking have access to reliable evidence on how well individual institutions meet these criteria.

The resources approach, in fact, is an attempt to specify and assess the criteria that are the bases for institutional reputations. Thus, the resource approach delineates quality by applying criteria such as SAT or ACT scores of entering first-year students, the number of books in the institution's library, or the scholarly productivity of its faculty [2]. Under this approach, the higher the average test scores of entering first-year students or the larger the library collection, the higher the quality of the institution.

Jacobi, Astin, and Ayala [17] point out that both the reputational and the resources approach are highly interdependent. An increase in reputation can bring additional resources to an institution, and an increase in resources can also yield a greater reputation. At first glance it seems that information useful to institutional policy can be obtained from these two approaches. …

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