A closer look: Dordt ranks first in undergraduate teaching, ties for first in engagement

Zac VanderLey– Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

It’s ranking season for colleges and universities across America. On Sept. 13, the US News and World Report ranked Dordt University the fifth best college in the Midwest. The higher learning institution also placed first in undergraduate teaching and tied for third place for most innovative schools in the Regional Colleges Midwest category. The annual college rankings gave Dordt a 92/100 overall score. 

A week later, on Sept. 21, the Wall Street Journal released their college rankings. Here, Dordt tied with Samford University for first place in the engagement category with a score of 18.1. The category, which represents 20 percent of a college’s overall ranking, is a composite of student engagement, student recommendation, interaction with teachers and students, and number of accredited programs. The Wall Street Journal awarded Dordt a overall score of 46.5-49.8, ranking them at 401-500.

For the past six years, Dordt has held claim to the number one ranking in student engagement, though they share the title with Samford this year. And, since 2017, their engagement score has, on average, decreased (18.3 to 18.1).

In a press release about the WSJ rankings, Dordt President Erik Hoekstra said, “To have a globally recognized and trusted entity like The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education speak so positively about Dordt University for six years in a row is certainly encouraging to us.”

“They are great in as much as they are true,” said Bob De Smith, professor of English. “And I do think they are true—we are an excellent institution. But I would hope that students come because they want to learn from that perspective, from those people [the Dordt community].”

Over 30 years ago, De Smith began teaching at Dordt. His wife taught in nearby Sheldon, Iowa. Their taught their kids, too. Around this time in 1983, the US News and World Report broke onto the news scene with their ranking of colleges and universities around the nation. They were the first to do it then and have continued to rank America’s higher learning institutions ever since. 

As Dordt’s profile and enrollment has increased over the decades, faculty members have busied themselves with grants and books, receiving recognition from entities like the US World and News along the way. De Smith remembers the times when the Dordt faculty had time to attend lecturers of other departments.  

“I wonder, are we as prophetic and countercultural as we maybe have been in the past?” De Smith said. 

Dordt’s ranking speaks to “the uniqueness of what we do—how we focus on our students first,” said university president Erik Hoekstra in a press release. 

The US World and News Report’s ranking’s system isn’t without its flaws, according to Malcolm Gladwell, author and producer of the podcast Revisionist History. This summer, his podcast investigated the variables— the “secret sauce”—behind the rankings. In an episode titled “Lord of the Rankings,” the New York Times bestselling author interviewed a statistics professor and a student at Reed College who simulated the publication’s algorithm. 

The two found that while many factors affect the official rankings—enrollment numbers, retention rates, graduation rates, and more— the peer assessment possesses the largest coefficient in the formula. It’s over six and a half times as influential as any other variable. 

The peer assessment’s value is generated by how presidents, provosts, and heads of admissions rank other colleges and universities on a scale of one to five. In the podcast, Gladwell explains, these administrators are sometimes asked to rate colleges they know nothing about.

In a seeming response to the podcast, US News published in September their “behind the rankings” information, stating the peer assessment contributed towards 20 percent of the Midwest schools’ rankings. In comparison, graduation and retention rate held 22 percent of the rubric. US News also noted that presidents, provosts, or any others taking the peer assessment test could answer “I don’t know enough” instead of a 1-5. This option would count neither for nor against the assessment of the college.

“What matters most is that our rankings align with who we say we are as an institution,” said Sarah Moss, Dordt’s director of marketing and communication. 

Dordt also ranked twenty-fourth in “best value schools,” tied for twenty-eighth in “top performers on social mobility” and tied for seventy-fifth in “best undergraduate engineering program” out of 87 eligible Midwest colleges and universities, according to US News.

“Dordt’s lived up to its expectations, for the most part, in community,” said senior computer science major Lafe Wessel. “Both in good and bad ways”

Wessel first visited the university on a whim. He decided to enroll because of the computer science department and its potential for community. Wessel did not know Dordt’s US News rankings when he toured as a potential student. While he did know about Dordt’s student engagement ranking, he put more stock in knowing some older students who went to Dordt. 

“Some things you get from college aren’t academic in origin, like connections you make,” said Wessel, whose connections with Dordt’s computer science department earned him a summer job.

“I do worry sometimes that in the past 5-10 years, we’ve started to exist for our own sakes,” De Smith said. 

He referenced the podcast “In All Things,” which on Aug. 24 interviewed former Dordt student Kristin Kobes Du Mez on her New York Times best-seller Jesus and John Wayne. Dordt professors of theology and history, Justin Bailey and Scott Culpepper, asked Du Mez about the value of winning in the church along with other topics related to her book. They ended the episode discussing the importance of institutions within Christianity.

“One of my professors, John Vander Stelt…he made a throw away comment about ‘Dordt not being around forever,’” said Du Mez. “And it shouldn’t be.”

Du Mez explained that institutions meet a need, and eventually they fall away, but God always provides. In the podcast, she labeled educational institutions “creational structures” that are integral to faith as they shape the next generations. But she called the members of these institutions to speak prophetic truth, no matter the institutional consequences.

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