Ranking colleges by their character

New guide tallies exemplary campus programs

Ask any frazzled high school senior what matters most in a college and it might be "small classes" or maybe "reputation." But with growing frequency, students and parents are searching for another key ingredient: character.

Every college and university at least pays lip service to character education, one of American higher education's most enduring themes. But finding an institution that really makes an effort at it can be a challenge.

Unfortunately, those ubiquitous college guide books are little help. They rank schools by student-faculty ratio, graduation rate, and other factors based on numbers that can be crunched.

Character, of course, is subjective and resists crunching. Yet the new "Templeton Guide to Colleges That Encourage Character," which hit bookstores last month, tries hard to identify colleges and universities where character education is more than a line in a glossy brochure.

The John Templeton Foundation has long concerned itself with elevating higher education beyond the purely intellectual. The idea for a guide grew of the foundation's previous years' publication of an "honor roll" of 100 schools that educated character.

This time, however, it used rigorously applied (if admittedly subjective) criteria to sift through thousands of nominations of four-year institutions. And with the help of the Institute on College Student Values at Florida State University in Tallahassee, it also researched thousands more.

This unusual guide does not offer rankings. Instead, it places 405 "exemplary programs" into 10 categories, including first-year programs, substance-abuse programs, and volunteer-service programs. The book also identifies 50 institutions whose presidents are leaders in establishing character-education "priorities and programs." Another 100 colleges and universities made the honor roll for making character development "an integral part" of the undergraduate experience.

But is anyone listening?

Yes, says Gwendolyn Jordan Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which represents student-affairs administrators in higher education.

"In the past, we've been leery of doing anything that sounds as if we're teaching values," she says. "But we have a new climate in the country where people talk about moral education, civic responsibility, and academic integrity a lot in higher education."

Student-affairs personnel have long felt obliged to instruct students to be responsible citizens. But the issue has not always been a priority for institutions. Now Ms. Jordan Dungy thinks the "vision for that kind of thinking is being lifted as part of the overall climate."

The book may also resonate with high school guidance counselors. Nancy Perry, executive director of the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), which represents 50,000 college-guidance counselors, predicts the guide will be well received as an important tool to be used in addition to other college guides.

"It's very good to have a guide that says, 'These are colleges that are really concerned about values and character, and here are programs that cater to this approach,' " she says.

The new guidebook has passed the ASCA's "first screening" and is now being reviewed by its counselors to determine whether the association will recommend it to its members.

It's welcome news to Arthur Schwartz, director of character-development programs at the Templeton Foundation.

Dr. Schwartz says the idea for a guide just emerged - though "we didn't want to use rankings because we wanted to keep things focused on what was positive about these schools."

Still, the foundation clearly hopes colleges will, over time, covet a review in the guide. Conspicuous by its absence, for instance, is Harvard University. Will Harvard try harder because the likes of the University of Miami made the grade?

So did little Asbury College in Wilmore Ky., a Christian-affiliated school, that proudly displays both the U.S. News & World Report logo for a high academic ranking - and its new Templeton Guide "A College of Character" logo on its Web home page.

"Ten years ago, I don't think schools would have wanted to be listed," says Jordan Dungy. "Today I think colleges are going to want to be in the book, and parents are going to want to be looking at it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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