The Top-10 Reasons behind the Rankings

May 3, 2017

By Gail Richmond

What makes a graduate program ranked at the top in the nation?

U.S. News & World Report generates its annual listing of graduate programs by asking education school deans to respond to an annual survey. As scholars, we might question a system of ranking universities based solely on the perceptions of individuals. However, as someone who has been on the faculty in Michigan State University’s College of Education since before these rankings started, my sense is that the No. 1 rankings that we regularly celebrate reflect a reputation that has been built upon significant efforts and real distinctions. There really are numerous reasons why MSU has been ranked No. 1 in elementary and secondary education for the past 23 years.

To be frank, I cannot think of a better place to work or to contribute to change. More than simply a place to work, we are a community with a core set of shared values and commitments that not only makes MSU one of the very best institutions for pursuing a graduate degree in education, but for making a significant impact on society.

To answer the question of why we are consistently ranked so highly, here are a few of my thoughts, without much thought given to the metrics themselves.

1. Commitment to schools and to communities

The land-grant/world-grant mission is something we all take very seriously. Much of our research takes place in classrooms, in schools and in the communities in which these schools are located. We place great emphasis on ensuring that our findings are disseminated so they inform practice; our practice also informs our research. I think many universities create a vision for serving people and professionals in the field, but at MSU, we are expected to make outreach a core feature of our work. It shapes our commitments and sustains our intellectual energies.

2. Incredible faculty

We have a large and diverse faculty. We represent so many different backgrounds and areas of interest. At the MSU College of Education, we have, for example, commitments to supporting early childhood literacy; to providing in- and out-of-school enrichment in STEM and in other subject areas; to understanding how effective leaders work to create powerful and innovative schools; to facilitating the development of school leaders who can effectively support their teaching staff; to supporting the continued professional growth of educators; to developing standards-aligned curriculum that is context- and needs-sensitive and to helping teachers use these resources to support learning. The list is long, varied and responsive to the changing needs of schools and the communities in which these schools exist. I am always struck by how incredible our faculty is in terms of intellectual output, collegial support and contributions to the everyday work and life of the institution. There’s a clear spirit of collaboration and learning across disciplinary boundaries.

3. Welcoming community

We are a strong community not only because of collaboration, but because of our efforts to create a sense of belonging. There’s a real richness here, a feeling that you can be from anywhere and feel at home. This isn’t to say that everyone immediately feels comfortable or that this occurs without effort, but there is a sense that those in the College of Education take this charge seriously, and exert real effort in helping others feel comfortable as community members. And this effort includes staff and graduate students as well as faculty. One of the most powerful examples of this for me in my early years here was my realization that many people simply like to “hang out” in Erickson Hall. It’s friendly. You can stop in anyone’s office and ask a question—which often turns into a lengthier conversation—or just say hello.

4. Respect for students

As faculty, we welcome students to this community and develop close relationships with them. We share a culture, developed from what I perceive to be these tenets: Do the very best work you can. Learn from what you do. Help others improve. And learn from others. The learning that happens here in the college is bidirectional; it’s not just what faculty teach graduate students, but what they teach us that makes us smarter and more responsive to the needs of the communities in which we live and work.

5. Support systems

I’ve always been impressed by the fact that our students are so incredibly supportive of each other. They form study groups, writing groups, groups to celebrate shared backgrounds, to provide needed personal support, to pursue goals related to social justice or simply to enjoy one another’s company or to “de-stress.” In addition to this kind of support, graduate students are provided with program-level support regarding course-taking, fellowships, teaching and research opportunities. The college is committed to supporting each and every accepted student in ways which will facilitate their intellectual and personal well-being and to enable them to pursue their goals.

6. Academic freedom

Our doctoral students have a great deal of flexibility. Unlike many other institutions, our college imposes very few course-related requirements, which allows students, in consultation with their advisor and guidance committee, to craft their academic trajectory as they articulate their intellectual interests and professional goals. This includes choosing courses and guidance committee members not only from other departments, but other colleges on campus or from outside MSU.

7. Financial coverage

I mentioned this briefly earlier, but there are multiple ways to be supported financially. When we accept graduate students into our programs, we commit to them wholeheartedly. In fact, all new doctoral students in the Department of Teacher Education, for example, are promised five years of funding, contingent on satisfactory academic progress. This means they receive free tuition and health care while holding assistantships or fellowships that immerse them in teaching and research. We try to create a variety of experiences for all our students so that when they leave here, they are prepared for successful careers in their fields.

8. Opportunities to lead

I think when we say that students are prepared to lead, we mean that literally as well as figuratively. Graduate students serve as leaders on campus as representatives on standing and search committees, for example, as coordinators for undergraduate courses and as active members of student governance. They are encouraged to get involved, and this encouragement comes not only from faculty and administrators, but from peers as well.

9. Persistence for greatness.

I think those who complete our graduate programs are truly prepared to teach and, more often than not, continue to do so across their careers. One reason they are so successful is because we teach them to analyze and reflect on their practice and never stop improving. This is a hallmark of what most faculty who study their own teaching and/or who invest heavily in teaching do. We are honest about what areas of our teaching can be strengthened and are willing to make creative changes, which could be a revision of a single course or an entire program. Productive and supportive discussion about areas of improvement and strategies for such improvement are part of the general culture of Erickson Hall.

10. It’s Michigan State University.

We are a well-regarded research institution but we have even more to offer than many people realize. You have to look a bit deeper. I always encourage prospective students to come to campus for a visit—yes, even in the middle of winter! Take advantage of the opportunity to talk with students and with faculty, to observe research group meetings, to participate in a class. Wander our beautiful campus and see and feel the differences I have described.

I believe that when you receive an advanced degree from the MSU College of Education, people will recognize that as a Spartan educator, you have a set of skills, understandings and commitments that set you apart.


About the author: Gail Richmond is a professor in the Michigan State University College of Education. She is known for her research contributions in science education, urban education and teacher preparation, and she serves as a leader at the local and national levels. She is co-editor of the Journal of Teacher Education and has been elected president-elect of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. She also serves as chair of the college’s Faculty Advisory Council.