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Understanding the Attributes: Intellectual Development

Sharpening the Mind

Developing the mental capabilities of our nation’s undergraduates is important business. We entrust many of our best young minds to our colleges and universities with the expectation they will be rigorously exercised and strengthened. Of the seven attributes we measure in assessing the College Experience for graduates, Intellectual Development, fortunately, scores the highest (has the highest Top Box score) when looking across all graduates. As the data in Figure 3.1 indicate, nearly 50% Strongly Agree their college developed them intellectually. That number climbs to 85% when you combine both Strongly Agree and Agree responses. Roughly 13% of all college graduates have mixed feelings (Somewhat Agree or Somewhat Disagree responses), and 2% of graduates Disagree or Strongly Disagree they were developed intellectually. This is excellent news, indeed.

Intellectual development is one of the highest purposes of any educational institution. Most parents, students and teachers cite this as one of the major objectives of undergraduate education.

This is good news for academic institutions in general, although we will see there is a wide disparity between types of institution, and across individual colleges and universities. In fact, Top Box scores among our ranked colleges ranged from a high of 88.5% (Sewanee) to a low of 26.5% (University of Tennessee). Figure 3.2 shows the difference in the Top Box scores for intellectual development across ten different ranking tiers of colleges and universities.

Graduates of the top-ranked schools believe they’ve been intellectually developed more than graduates of unranked schools. The Top 50 National Universities score significantly higher than All Unranked Schools, and there is a smaller gap (4.7 points) between the Top 50 National Universities score and the score across All College Grad Respondents. However, it is the Top 50 Liberal Arts Colleges that are rated significantly higher than any other group by their graduates for fostering intellectual development.

Liberal arts colleges comprise 21 of the Top 25 colleges in intellectual development. Among the Top 25, the only four national universities are University of Chicago (7th), Rice University (14th), Yale University (17th) and Caltech (23rd).

Figure 3.3 shows the spread of Top Box percentage scores within each ranked group. There is significant variation not only between groups of colleges, but also within each group.

A number of factors could potentially drive differences in scores for intellectual development: gender, race, age, number of undergraduates, typical class size, professor quality, curriculum, major, the type of graduate and even the intellectual caliber of the graduate doing the rating (the theory being the higher the intellect, the tougher the assessment of intellectual development).

Do intellectual development assessments differ by gender or race?

Race and gender clearly correlate with differences in intellectual development scores, as indicated in Figure 3.4. Asian males and females give the lowest scores overall; and Black males give the highest scores overall. White and Hispanic graduates are nearly identical in their scores.

Does age affect intellectual development scores?

College graduates’ views of their intellectual development appear to be highest in the first decade after graduation, after which it drops to a fairly consistent level throughout the rest of a graduate’s life. As shown in Figure 3.5, nearly 55% of graduates in their twenties Strongly Agree they were developed intellectually by their college. By the time they reach their forties, that percentage drops to almost 48% and stays constant through their sixties.

Some might argue that lower scores among older alumni mean the schools are now doing a better job of developing students. We do not believe that is the case. We believe it has more to do with the differences between 25-year-olds and 50-year-olds. The nearness of the college experience and their relative inexperience in the real world positively distorts the twenty-something’s view. Graduates in their forties and fifties likely have a broader and more rigorous definition of intellectual development; have a more realistic sense of their develop- ment versus others, given their successes and failures in life; and are, therefore, more objective regarding their college’s prowess in this area.

Does college size make a difference?

While the size of the college or university doesn’t explain all the differences in graduate perception of intellectual development, Figure 3.6 shows that smaller tends to be better. It appears to be easier to provide a powerful intellectual experience for fewer students than it is to create that same experience for large numbers.


Figure 3.6 indicates there are only three schools with a score of 80% or better, all of which are small liberal arts colleges. There are 30 schools with a score of 70% or better, and 62 schools where 60% or more graduates Strongly Agree their school developed them intellectually. There are three schools in the entire database that score above 70% and have more than 5,000 undergraduates: University of Chicago (79.0% Strongly Agree), Yale (74.3%) and Princeton (72.4%). Of the 62 schools above 60%, 49 (79%) have fewer than 5,000 undergraduates. There are many small schools (with fewer than 4,000 students) that do not score as well in this area, just as there are large schools that do score well.

From the data shown in Figure 3.7, it is evident that when a college creates an intimate learning environment with a ratio of students to faculty where they can connect personally, it is more likely graduates will perceive they were fully developed intellectually. Virtually every college understands this, but for some, the task is more difficult. Financial challenges, sheer number of students, the physical campus, building constraints and well-entrenched traditions that are important to the school can make it more difficult to make smaller class sizes a reality.

Does a high level of intelligence create a higher expectation for intellectual development?

Is intellectual development an absolute standard, or is it relative to the individual? Are schools with the smarter students (higher SAT scores) held to a higher standard of intellectual development than the schools with students having lower SAT scores?

Figure 3.8 plots 227 schools against both intellectual development and reported SAT scores. Highlighted in red are five schools (Amherst, Middlebury, Air Force Academy, College of Wooster and Spelman) with nearly identical intellectual development scores but significantly different SAT scores among their alumni. While graduates of all five schools have SAT scores higher than the NCES reported average for 2011, two of them fall below the mean SAT score for the ranked colleges. We know graduates of each of these schools have similar perceptions of the intellectual development they received (they all rate their schools equally). However, a graduate can only provide a score for the college they experienced – their own. How should we think about these similar scores when they come from students with such seemingly different intellectual capability? Should we assume each of these schools offer, in the absolute, the same level of intellectual develop- ment? Or should we adjust scores based on other meaningful factors, such as student SATs?

There is no simple way to answer these questions with any certainty across all colleges, but our hypothesis is that intellectual development is in the eye of the graduate who was developed. If a graduate from Amherst were to instead attend Middlebury, the graduate may well score intellectual development differently, because they would have had a different experience. Based on our findings, we know graduates of Middlebury, Air Force Academy, College of Wooster and Spelman feel they were as intellectually developed as the graduates of Amherst. Until we can look at other objective measures that would tell us one graduate’s view of intellectual development is more correct than another’s (and we don’t have any at this point), we can confidently say the mean scores we have for intellectual development reflect each graduate’s perception of the job their college did, and can be compared as such.

Factoring in intellectual capability as a means of differentiating colleges in intellectual development, the dotted lines in Figure 3.8 intersect at the mean intellectual development score and the mean SAT score for our respondents. We believe schools in the upper-right quadrant of Figure 3.8 do a particularly good job of intellectual development, given they are receiving high scores from high-caliber graduates who set, ostensibly, a high bar for intellectual development. The “lower-than-average SAT score” is relative only to the colleges on which we have focused in this analysis. In fact, the SAT scores for all ranked colleges, including those in the lower-left portion of Figure 3.8, are higher relative to all college students. We note the ongoing debate on the validity of SAT scores as a measure of intellectual capability; because they are one of the only metrics available consistently across all schools, we rely upon them here.

Which large schools do the best job at the intellectual development of highly capable students?

Despite their large number of undergraduates, 15 schools provide strong intellectual development to their students. Schools that deliver significant intellectual development to more than 10,000 undergraduates deserve special praise (Figure 3.9).

Why are these 15 schools so impressive? It’s a matter of scale. Figure 3.10 shows three substantially smaller schools that match UC Berkeley’s level of success in Intellectual Development. For perspective, over the last decade Franklin & Marshall has provided an excellent education to roughly 23,000 students, while UC Berkeley has provided an equally excellent education to more than 250,000 students – more than 10 times more.

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