I have not had the opportunity to visit the University of Oregon though I have seen its football team, in various uniforms, compete on national TV. This week the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a story on the University of Oregon that Educated Quest visitors might find useful in their own quests to find a “good school.”
The Chronicle audience is professionals who work in higher education. In some cases their definition of a good school will different than those of college counselors as well as families researching and choosing a college. This is one of the problems of college rankings, especially U.S. News’ recent and past rankings, that rely on opinions from educators, among other sources.
In the Chronicle story the reporter mentions that the University of Oregon does not produce the research dollars nor the numbers of doctoral degrees that its “peer schools” do. One reason is structural. The University does not offer degrees in engineering, medicine or pharmacy. Oregon State University is the Federal Land Grant school that awards more degrees in the sciences as well as engineering. The administration of the University of Oregon also compares their school to schools such as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan. According to the National Association of College and University Business Officers,the University of Oregon had a $627 million endowment in Fiscal Year 2014, Among these three “peers,” the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill had the lowest endowment, a “paltry” $2.7 billion.
The other reason appears to be blame. Oregon, like other states, has cut spending on higher education while the flagship state university makes more investments in creature comforts for undergraduates as well as intercollegiate athletics. The state of Oregon does not produce enough students to help its flagship fill a freshman class. Today nearly half of a freshman class (47 percent) and just over 40 percent of the undergraduate student body, comes from other states. Oregon State is more the “state” school. Their numbers, according to their most recent Common Data Set, are 27 and 25 percent respectively.
I get from the reading that the University of Oregon is trying to succeed by recruiting a more geographically diverse undergraduate student body. It needs the revenues from out-of-state tuition, even if the students need scholarships. The school is helped by the fact that the flagships in California and Washington State are exceptionally selective. The University of Oregon has become an attractive option for Californians who cannot get into Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego or Santa Barbara.
I also get that the investments that the University of Oregon has made to attract these students have kept the school from being able to recruit faculty with stronger scholarly credentials. In turn that creates another problem: weaker graduate programs, especially doctoral degree programs, that will not be respected by other universities.
With just over 20,000 undergraduates, the University of Oregon is similar in size to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass-Amherst). UMass-Amherst graduated nearly 60 percent of the students who entered in 2009 vs. 44 percent of the University of Oregon freshmen who finished on time. The UMass system endowment is larger, $758 million. But that money supports four campuses, compared to one for the University of Oregon. UMass-Amherst retained 88 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2013 versus 85 percent for the University of Oregon. It would be fair to argue that UMass, because its system has four schools, has fewer financial resources to dedicate to its main campus than the University of Oregon.
The University of Oregon is also similar in undergraduate student body size to New York’s largest flagship campus, its university center at Buffalo. SUNY-Buffalo graduated just over half of the freshmen (52 percent) who entered in 2009, better than the University of Oregon . The school retained 87 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2013, also better. Yet SUNY Buffalo has an endowment ($625 million) on one campus that was approximately $45 million less than the University of Oregon.
It is fair to argue that UMass-Amherst and SUNY-Buffalo, in terms of guiding undergraduates to degrees, do more with less. However, neither UMass-Amherst nor SUNY-Buffalo, like the University of Oregon, is a “top of mind” school for U.S. universities that are seeking a recent doctoral graduate for a vacancy. But if their freshman retention rates are better, as well as their four-year graduation rates, these schools must be doing something that the University of Oregon is not..
Because of sports successes, the popularity with Californians, and a very good honors college (Clark) the University of Oregon is a higher profile institution among college-bound students than schools such as UMass or SUNY-Buffalo. It should be doing a better job of graduating students than it does. It should definitely do a better job at retaining them, given the investments in student-oriented facilities and the sports program.
But the answer is not to attract professors who can bring in more research dollars or attract more graduate students to pursue doctorates. It is to improve the undergraduate experience towards greater student success. Then graduates of the University of Oregon will get more respect from employers and other fine universities that grant more prominent advanced degrees. They might also become more interested in continuing their education at the University of Oregon, which would spur more interest and investments into the graduate programs.
If the administration of the University of Oregon complained that it did not have the resources that schools like UMass and SUNY-Buffalo has to improve undergraduate student success, I’d buy in if I was a member of the Oregon state legislature and give them the money. I’d have no reason to pull back the reins on the sports program. The University of Oregon athletic department has Phil Knight’s fortune behind it.
Better yet, if I were a member of the Oregon legislature, I’d pressure the university to drop their $2 million subsidy towards the athletic program. I’d propose that they use that money as a match for a second $2 million in state funds towards a student success program for those students who don’t play sports.
I have no doubt that the extra $4 million investment in student success, including academic advising, living-learning communities and the like, would improve the freshmen retention and graduation rates and bring the closer to those of the schools that the university administration regards as peers. Maybe then it will be regarded as a good college by reviewers and academics alike.
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