Editorials, detail

"Higher Education In Perspective"

by Luis M. Proenza, President
The University of Akron

Columbus Dispatch - December 23, 2000

The just-released performance report requested by Governor Taft from the Ohio Board of Regents brings to an end a year of many studies on higher education across the nation and the world. Each report reveals vital facts and issues, yet each is incomplete in the larger context of a complex subject. Thus, I offer this advice to our Governor.

To begin with, Governor Taft, you will find it difficult -- as all of us do -- to make any rational sense of so large a universe of colleges and universities as we have in America (3,856 nationally), or of the more than 200 in Ohio, 38 of which are public. Even the often-touted Carnegie Foundation's Classification of colleges and universities will not help. Its long-standing (1970-2000) approach was recently discarded because too many institutions abused it, claiming that their classification conferred status ("class") or excellence. The Foundation's new "millennial edition" is an interim scheme awaiting a 2005 revision, but it is based on arbitrary thresholds and remains subject to pretentious claims. The fact is that with so many and so diverse a group of institutions, simple measures are impractical, and satisfactory rankings improbable. The strength of American higher education, you see, lies in its competitive diversity.

Listen to the American Council on Education. They will tell you that higher education is arguably the least understood of all consumer services in America. Typically, the public attributes mistaken and humorous characteristics to those institutions whose names they may recognize (e.g., suggesting that an MIT degree is "good" because they teach practical things like auto mechanics).

You also may want to examine the best known, if always controversial, collegiate rankings published annually by U.S. News & World Report. The magazine uses its own categories (such as national universities, regional universities, etc.), and you will see that among the four tiers of the 228 so-called national universities, 10 of Ohio's 38 public colleges and universities are listed. None appear in the first tier, 3 appear in the second, 2 in the third, and 5 in the fourth tier. You may notice that only four of Ohio's public universities have any specific graduate or professional programs ranked nationally - The Ohio State University, University of Cincinnati, The University of Akron, and Bowling Green University. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not remind you that The University of Akron is the only university in Ohio, public or private, to have a science and engineering program ranked in the top five nationally.

You should know that student selectivity (number of students admitted as a percentage of those who apply) has been one of the ranking measures used principally by many, including U.S. News & World Report. But selectivity will assure you only of a group of students matched according to the criteria for admission. Indeed, careful studies confirm that when student quality is factored out, there is no particular reason to choose Stanford over Michigan, or either of those universities over Ohio State. Selectivity, in other words, may tell you a lot about the students, but does not mean that a selective university adds any value.

Other studies, as you will see, equate quality with size of budget or with the amount of resources spent per student - measures that would be synonymous with inefficiency in business.

Finally, Governor Taft, take a look at measures of student retention or of graduation rates, and you will find that they favor schools that enroll full-time students over universities that enroll those who work while going to school. When students are working, they cannot complete a degree in four years, or even in the 5.3 years that the average full-time student in America takes to finish a baccalaureate degree. In other words, time to degree also is more a function of the student than of the university.

This is the bottom line: No university has a monopoly on green grass, . . . or on weeds! Any university will be first or last on some measure. It all depends on how you frame the question.

What Ohioans need from our universities is affordability, something for which the state almost got a failing grade. And, Ohio's new economy needs the technologies that only our universities can provide.

Let us now work together to build Ohio's future.

The University of Akron

Akron, OH 44325
Phone: 330-972-7111
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