Their view: Rankings don’t show Wilkes’ true value

Patrick F. Leahy - Guest Columnist | September 17th, 2017 7:01 pm

U.S. News & World Report this week released its 2018 ranking of American colleges and universities. This ranking is the publication’s annual attempt to identify the “best” colleges and universities in the country. Wilkes University was once again pleased to be included among the excellent schools in the ranking.

The U.S. News & World Report ranking considers many factors in its calculations: acceptance rates, academic quality profile, retention and graduation rates, financial resources, and peer perception. However, U.S. News does not adequately take into consideration the profile of the students that each institution chooses to serve, which greatly limits the ranking’s value.

Institutions that serve access missions, such as Wilkes, tend to be adversely affected by the ranking measures. Since its founding in 1933 in downtown Wilkes-Barre as Bucknell University Junior College, Wilkes – a private, independent, non-denominational university – has always welcomed male and female students of all socio-economic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds.

Our founding president, Dr. Eugene Farley, said it this way: “We would be a private institution with a public purpose.”

Today, we remain faithful to that founding mission.

In our current first-year class, 51 percent of our undergraduates are the first in their families to earn a four-year degree. This year, 35 percent of our first-year students are eligible for Pell grants, the federal aid program that supports the most financially needy students, and 49 percent of them qualify for state grants due to their high financial need.

In fact, only five percent of our incoming students will pay list price this year, and three times as many will show an expected family contribution of zero dollars. In this fall’s first-year class of 625 students, the second largest in our history, just 40 graduated from private (i.e., college preparatory) high schools. Given our academic and athletic program mix, Wilkes bucks the prevailing trend in American higher education by enrolling in this year’s freshmen class considerably more male students (57 percent) than female students (43 percent), an important factor since male students generally retain and graduate at lower rates than female students.

And, finally, 25 percent of our entering class self reports as non-white, nearly all of whom are underrepresented minorities.

Of the 187 institutions in our U.S. News category, only one institution can claim this mix of access measures, according to the national reporting system, and that institution ranks well down the list. We at Wilkes out-access many of the private colleges and universities — and even some of the public ones — across American higher education.

Since there is a direct correlation between all of these factors and college preparedness, Wilkes’ reports lower incoming SAT scores, lower first-year retention rates and lower six-year graduation rates, among other factors. These numbers can weaken our institution’s score and hurt our ranking, since U.S. News focuses largely on factors contradictory to access.

Wilkes enrolls its share of highly academically prepared students, and these students retain and graduate at rates comparable to the elite institutions in the country. But, in remaining faithful to its founding mission, Wilkes is also proud to embrace students who may face academic and economic challenges.

These higher-risk students pursue the same rigorous academic curriculum across our six schools: pharmacy; nursing; science & engineering; education; business; and arts, humanities, & social sciences. While we are always searching for new, innovative ways to improve student outcomes, we will not improve retention and graduation rates by diluting the curriculum.

Would you want to drive over a bridge that was designed by an engineer who was allowed to skate through a program in order to improve outcome measures? With a significantly higher-risk student population, our educational outcomes are only slightly lower than many other institutions on the list. But, instead of celebrating institutions like Wilkes University, for their commitment to educational access, U.S. News & World Report punishes those institutions, creating an incentive for colleges and universities to reject more first-generation and high-need students.

And these are precisely the students that we need to engage if we are to meet a national mandate for a more college-educated workforce.

I would propose that a better measure of “best” colleges and universities would be a “distance traveled” measure – that is, how much has an individual institution helped a student advance.

The Economist produced a ranking two years ago that attempted to measure just that, and Wilkes was ranked 25 out of 1,275 colleges and universities nationwide in that ranking.

Consider nursing education.

The highest ranked university in the country with a nursing school is likely the University of Pennsylvania. According to the U.S. News ranking, Penn admits just nine percent of its undergraduate applicants, with an average SAT score of 1,475. Wilkes also has a school of nursing. We admit 76 percent of our undergraduate applicants, with an average SAT score of just 1,013. Yet four years later, nursing students from both institutions take the same national licensing exam, and nursing students at Penn and Wilkes pass at comparable rates.

Where is the ranking that measures that academic distance traveled?

Wilkes University chooses to educate a higher-risk student body because we believe that talent is everywhere, and it is our duty as educators to help students find, develop and unleash it.

We will do everything we can — adopting and implementing all of the best practices throughout American higher education — to improve retention and graduation rates, alumni giving percentages, and other U.S. News measures that make sense.

We’ll continue this effort, not because U.S. News demands it, but because our students deserve it.


Patrick F. Leahy

Guest Columnist

Dr. Patrick F. Leahy is the president of Wilkes University.