Will a Faculty Strike Make Pennsylvania State System Schools Better?

Some states have several public colleges and universities, but usually one state university system office that makes policy and administrative decisions on behalf of all of its schools. Pennsylvania is unique. It has not one, but four public university systems. Three: Lincoln University, Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University are state related; they receive no operating aid from state government. The fourth, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, does. This week, the faculty members at the 14 schools in this system decided to strike. The system employs over 5,500 faculty as well as coaches who are covered under the same union contract.

One might find it difficult to show sympathy for permanent public college faculty. These schools employ faculty and administrators who hold the highest degrees in their fields, much like a hospital employs expensive talent to provide medical care. Politicians may question whether faculty who teach outside of pre-professional subjects or the sciences are “needed” in their state’s colleges. However, one of the strengths of a good performing public college is the collegiality of the faculty. They stay not only because they want to teach as well as conduct research; they also believe that they are adequately paid to do it, otherwise they leave for a better opportunity. Good teachers are also accessible to their students when teaching and research are their primary jobs.

Sadly, public colleges that have financial concerns rely more on adjunct or temporary faculty who may be employed outside of their schools in other jobs or might be teaching on several college campuses at the same time. The administrators of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education—the schools are run from a central office based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital—proposed that the cap on the percentage of temporary faculty on system campuses be raised from 25 to 30 percent and that graduate students should be allowed to teach labs and clinics.

Neither the percentage nor the use of graduate students would appear unusual at universities such as Pitt or Temple. These schools are located in cities, have larger undergraduate student bodies and several doctoral and professional programs. It is common, for example, for successful attorneys, business executives, physicians or scientists to teach a course or two at these universities.  However, the schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education are not like Pitt or Temple.

Only one system school, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is a considered a research university along the same lines as Pitt or Temple. But only 12 of its graduate programs are doctoral degrees. Pitt offers many more doctoral programs as well as the highest degrees in health professions, the law and medicine. Indiana would never be able to rely on graduate students in the same manner as Pitt, and it shouldn’t. It might be possible for four of the Pennsylvania State System schools to rely more on adjunct or temporary instructors: Cheyney, Kutztown, Millersville, West Chester and Shippensburg because they are located near larger labor markets as well as other colleges. However, the other schools are situated in more isolated places. The more dire their financial conditions the more likely they would retrench and reduce their academic offerings to those where there is enough demand instead of relying on a temporary workforce to continue these programs.

Another argument that could be raised in favor of expanding the number of temporary faculty is that the Pennsylvania State System schools are more likely to remain affordable versus Penn State, Pitt or Temple. These three state-related schools are among the most expensive in the US in terms of resident tuition and fees. These charges can often exceed $20,000 depending on the academic program and the student’s academic standing. By comparison, resident tuition and fees at the Pennsylvania State System schools are unlikely to exceed $12,000.

The Pennsylvania State System schools appear at first glance to be a better buy.

But do they serve their students well?

The definition of a “good school” is relative to a family, depending on a student’s knowledge, skills, abilities and interests. The Pennsylvania State System schools were founded as teacher’s colleges and still fulfill this mission, even as they have added liberal arts, health care, science/engineering and business programs. If a student wanted to be a teacher in Pennsylvania public schools, but qualified for no merit or need-based aid, a Pennsylvania State System university would be a much better buy than Penn State, Pitt or Temple.

But a good school should be able to succeed at retaining and graduating the students that it has been able to attract. This is where the Pennsylvania State System schools have fallen short.  Only one (Slippery Rock) retains at least 80 percent of a freshman class while graduating at least half (52 percent) of a freshman class on time, a fair statistical standard for a “good-performing” public college. West Chester’s freshman retention rate (87 percent vs. 89 percent) and four-year graduation rate compare favorably to Temple (43 percent for both schools). However, other campuses, including Kutztown, Millersville and Shippensburg, lose nearly 30 percent of a freshman class. That signals not only low graduation rates, but also problems in either selecting or educating students.

The schools that need to guide their students better either need more faculty who have better job security, and hopefully better teaching skills. They also need better academic advising to complement the teaching. Neither the teaching nor the advising will get better if the poorer-performing schools have to place more reliance on temporary instructors or graduate students. The more productive solution would be to reduce the numbers of academic programs that are in low demand and focus on strengths—or maybe the number of system campuses altogether—an unpopular thought replaced with one that would probably be more unpopular.

One might not like the idea of faculty striking, especially during the beginning of a college admissions cycle. It sends the wrong signals to current and prospective students. But aside from the labor relations issues there is a legitimate concern about the quality of a college faculty and its ability to help their students. A public college that relies more on a temporary faculty, or even worse, less-trained graduate students as instructors is not likely to become a more respected academic institution. If anything, its retention and graduation rates will trend downward. The more unpopular thoughts will become more popular among the more conservative governors and state legislators.


Are Jesuit Colleges ‘Good’ Schools?

There are 28 Jesuit colleges in the United States of varying sizes. Georgetown University, founded in 1789, is the oldest. Wheeling Jesuit University (WV) founded as Wheeling College in 1954, is the youngest. These schools have undergraduate student body sizes ranging from just over 1,000 (Wheeling Jesuit) to more than 11,000 (Loyola University-Chicago). These are Catholic colleges. The Jesuits are one of several orders within the Catholic Church.

Jesuit colleges are listed in various classes of colleges and universities. The College of the Holy Cross, for example, is a National Liberal Arts College while Boston College is a National Research University. However, these schools are often cross shopped against each other among students who seek a Catholic college. Several of these schools are also cross-shopped against colleges that are affiliated with other Catholic orders. For example, Boston College is considered against Villanova University (Augustinian), Providence College (Roman Catholic) and the University of Notre Dame (Holy Cross).

Jesuit colleges, while Catholic, welcome students of all faiths. While all students must take courses in philosophy and/or religion they are not required to take a specific course in Catholicism. Some embrace themes in marketing such as cura personalis (educate the whole person) or magis (being more than you are or believe you can be).

Some Jesuit college have higher profiles due to athletics. Boston College, for example, is the only Jesuit school that plays in a “Power Five” NCAA Division I football conference. Five Jesuit schools have won the NCAA National Championship in men’s basketball (Georgetown, Holy Cross, Loyola-Chicago, Marquette and the University of San Francisco) since tournament play began in 1939. Georgetown and Marquette remain relevant in major college basketball as do Saint Joseph’s University (PA), Gonzaga University (WA) and Xavier University (OH). The majority of the Jesuit schools compete in Division 1 sports, granting athletic scholarships.

When costs and numbers come into play, are Jesuit schools “good colleges” or “good values for the money”?  Colleges promote and manage services performed by people who have to deliver services well. Below are some quantifiable measures of these services that can be used, regardless of the size of the school.

  • Has the college successfully prepared a freshman class that decided to remain for their sophomore year?  This is a reflection not only of the admissions office and marketing, but also the first-year experience.
  • Can it successfully graduate a freshman class on time, within four years? These are private colleges often shopped by families who have sent their children to private or parochial high schools. A family’s return on investment is partly a reflection of the school’s ability to guide students towards a degree on time, excepting students who wish to continue on for an advanced degree at the same school or a partner school.
  • Has it done a better job at graduating a class than the larger public colleges that its students were most likely to consider? Families that have opted for private or parochial high schools may do in the belief that these schools will perform better than public schools. Such families would have the same expectation of a Jesuit college. I consider a 70 percent four-year graduation rate to be the standard of excellence for a private college. Twelve Jesuit schools attain or exceed this standard;   another, Xavier University (OH), exceeds 65 percent.
  • Is the college capable of assisting students who have significant financial need, so that they do not graduate with excessive debt? Their graduates will enter the same job market or pursue the same educational options as students who attend other private colleges as well as public colleges. If costs are an issue for a family then the family should attempt to match educational needs to financial needs.
  • Has it been able to graduate students in the health professions, sciences, mathematics and engineering?  Among faculty with doctorates, these professors could have considered offers from private industry versus academia. Given that most of these schools do not grant doctorates in these subjects—none offer doctorates in engineering—a faculty member’s decision to remain should be based on a desire to teach undergraduates. This should be reflected in the percentages of undergraduates who complete degrees in these subjects.

Based on these criteria, the following schools received A ratings:

  • Boston College (MA)
  • College of the Holy Cross (MA)
  • Fairfield University (CT)
  • Georgetown University (DC)
  • Santa Clara University (CA)

These schools came close and received B+ ratings

  • Creighton University (NE)
  • Fordham University (NY)
  • Gonzaga University (WA)
  • Loyola University (MD)
  • Saint Joseph’s University (PA)
  • University of Scranton (PA)

One of the concerns that I have noticed with Jesuit schools is student loan debt. The schools that receive ‘A’s’ had an average borrower indebtedness of less than $28,000 for their 2015 graduating class. The maximum that students can borrow over four years from the Federal Stafford Student Loan program is $27,000. All of the ‘B+’ schools, excluding Gonzaga, had average borrower debt in excess of $30,000. Gonzaga’s average borrower debt was approximately $29,500, $1,500 more than the ‘A’ rated schools.

I have visited seven Jesuit colleges in my travels (Fairfield, Fordham, Holy Cross, Loyola-Maryland, Saint Joseph’s, Santa Clara, Scranton). I have had little reason to fault the education at all of these schools. But also wish that the financial aid covered more need than it currently does. The Jesuit educational experience may be very good. But in many cases you might have to pay a premium to get it.

For more “inside baseball” about Jesuit colleges and other schools to help you in your college search, contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com


Are The Colleges That Change Lives ‘Good’ Schools?

There are many books you can buy that profile colleges and universities. Among the more notable is The Colleges That Change Lives.  There have been four editions of The Colleges That Change Lives since 1996; the most recent edition was released in 2013. The major purpose behind the book has been to profile colleges that are usually not exceptionally selective but deliver an education that offers their students the same benefits and results as they might receive from a more selective or more noted brand.

There are more than 40 Colleges That Change Lives. The chosen colleges have been fairly consistent, though four schools that appeared in the early editions of the book: Bard College (NY), Franklin & Marshall College (PA), Grinnell College (IA), and St. Andrews University (NC) do not appear in the current one.

All of the current schools are National Liberal Arts Colleges with the exceptions of Clark University (National Research University), St. Mary’s College of California (Regional University-West), Evergreen State College (Regional University-West) and Lynchburg College (Regional University-South). These schools have been profiled in four editions of a globally-circulated book. The colleges have also collaborated over the past ten years to form a non-profit association that raises funds for scholarships and hosts admissions fairs across the United States.

Loren Pope, the author of the first three editions of the book, believed that small liberal arts colleges offered the best undergraduate educational experience. He added that 2,000 students was the ideal limit for the size of the undergraduate student body. However, 11 of the Colleges That Change Lives have more than 2,000 undergraduates (some also grant graduate degrees) while three have more than 3,000.

Pope’s reporting was not heavily based on the “performance” of these colleges by the numbers or their “value for the money,” but rather on his thoughts gathered by visiting each school and speaking with administrators, faculty and students. This is also true of the latest version of The Colleges That Change Lives, written by journalist Hilary Masell Oswald. Pope passed away in 2008.

But when costs and numbers come into play, are these schools “good colleges” or “good values for the money”? Some are. But some are not what some might hope after spending the time to read The Colleges That Change Lives. It is quite easy to laud a college based on anecdotes. But good colleges, which also promote and manage services performed by people, have to deliver those services well. For instance:

  • Has the college successfully prepared a freshman class that decided to remain for their sophomore year? This is the mark not only of a successful admissions effort but also a sound first-year experience.
  • Can it successfully graduate a freshman class on time, within four years? Unless the students are interested in accelerated programs that lead to an advanced degree, it should graduate most of the students it successfully retains within four years.
  • Has it done a better job at graduating a class than the larger public colleges that its students were most likely to consider? There are varied opinions among admissions advisors and professionals. Mine is that a small private college should do a better job of graduating its students than the flagship state university in its home state. My benchmark is 70 percent or higher.
  • Is the college capable of assisting students who have significant financial need, so that they do not graduate with excessive debt? The affordability issue is consistently raised among those who are considering private liberal arts colleges. Quite frankly, several Colleges That Change Lives do this very well, but several do not.
  • Has it been able to graduate students in the sciences and mathematics?  This is a reflection of teaching quality. Faculty in the sciences and mathematics are perhaps the only liberal arts doctorates (aside from Economics or Psychology) who are likely to find competition for employment from private industry as well as academia. Retaining good teachers in these fields who do a very good job to motivate students to pursue study in these fields is one mark of a strong faculty.

Given these measures, I would give the following Colleges That Change Lives an ‘A’ grade and consider them to be “excellent” schools by these measures:

  • Centre College (KY)
  • Clark University (MA)
  • College of Wooster (OH)
  • Denison University (OH)
  • Kalamazoo College (MI)
  • Reed College (OR)
  • Rhodes College (TN)
  • St. Olaf College (MN)
  • Wheaton College (IL)
  • Whitman College (WA)
  • Willamette University (OR)

This is a quarter of the Colleges That Change Lives. Five of these schools have become more selective. Denison, Reed, Rhodes, St. Olaf and Whitman offered admission to less than half of the students who applied to join their freshman class in 2015.

There were some “very good” schools that came close, falling slightly short in one measure that also deserve mention. These 10 ‘B+’ schools include:

  • Allegheny College (PA)
  • Austin College (TX)
  • Beloit College (WI)
  • Birmingham-Southern College (AL)
  • Cornell College (IA)
  • Earlham College (IN)
  • Hampshire College (MA)
  • Hillsdale College (MI)
  • Knox College (IL)
  • Ursinus College (PA)

All these schools accepted at least half of the applicants they enticed to apply to join their 2015 freshman class.

Truly half of the Colleges That Change Lives are either excellent or very good by these basic measures. They also have the advantage of being promoted in a very well circulated book. But these are not the only liberal arts colleges in America that surely “change lives.” There are others that perform just as well for their students. That’s where a good college advisor can help.

For more “inside baseball” to help you learn more about The Colleges That Change Lives and other schools in your search, please contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com


My ‘Reach’ School : The Schreyer Honors College at Penn State-University Park

I have found my “reach school.” It is the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State-University Park.  Ok, I am long past my college education as well as graduate school. But whenever I visit a college I always try to picture myself as a student on campus. I try to imagine, if all things were the same, how I would approach the college search today. I have profiled Penn State before and collected many pictures of the campus.

While I have often recommended small colleges to many high school students and their parents, the “me of my past” wanted to go a large school. I wanted to go to a college that had a daily newspaper as well as a football team that played other “brand name” schools. I also wanted to go to a school where people from my hometown were not coming with me.

I’d like to boast that I was an extraordinary high school student. But I was not. I had excellent grades but they were less than excellent in the sciences. My SAT scores were average for admission to Rutgers-New Brunswick, where I went, as well as Penn State-University Park. Today I would probably have some AP credits and higher SAT scores. But I would still be the average student —B-plus/A-minus with a 1250 SAT—in a freshman class at Rutgers or Penn State. Pretty good, but nothing special. The experience at Penn State would have been one of large classes the first two years on a campus that feels quite crowded on a school day, more crowded than Rutgers feels today. Since I would be middle of the pack, and from New Jersey, I would have more likely gone to Rutgers.

But unlike Rutgers’ Honors College, which admits by invitation, the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State allows anyone who believes that they can get into the university to apply. They just have to be willing to do the extra work, to write strong, persuasive essays and interview well. After attending a Schreyer Scholar’s Day program at Penn State last month, I believe that I would have been convinced to try for admission. Had I gotten in, I would have said “yes” and made the trek west to State College, PA.

Named for former Merrill Lynch CEO and Penn State alumnus, William A. Schreyer, who made the first major gift, the Schreyer Honors College is an attempt to combine the advantages of the small size and personal attention of a liberal arts college with the vast resources of a very large school such as Penn State-University Park. These include not only the resources on campus, but also one of the largest alumni networks in the world. Some of the pluses could be shown through a Pinterest page.

While the university has nearly 40,000 undergraduates, the Schreyer Honors College has only 1,800, about the same as Amherst College, considered one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the US. However, while Amherst has only 38 majors, Schreyer students can choose from over 160 offered by Penn State. For students with interests that complement or go beyond a traditional liberal arts education, Penn State’s honors college has a clear advantage. In addition, the Honors College has its own career services coordinator; this complements the career services offered by the university.

Schreyer students must complete 12 “honors level” courses, with 300 offered through Schreyer alone. These courses are capped at 24 students. Most other Penn State students are not likely to see such small classes until at least their junior year. They must also write an honors thesis. The honors-level courses could be chosen within a student’s major or within the general education requirements of the university or the student’s chosen school from within Penn State. The policies for AP or IB credit are more generous than they are likely to be for an Ivy League or similar school. It is reasonable to expect that a student who walks into Schreyer with a semester’s worth of AP or IB credits could graduate four years later with a master’s degree in some majors or a bachelor’s with two demanding double majors. There are more academic benefits to being part of the Schreyer community than its students could ever hope to use.

Admission into Schreyer turns Penn State from a fair value into a great value. To date the university charged Pennsylvania residents nearly $17,000 in tuition and fees last year; non-residents were asked to pay over $30,000. However, Schreyer Scholars receive a merit-based award of $4,500 a year, renewable with a 3.4 GPA overall as well as in the honors courses. In most cases an Ivy or similar school will not discount down to this level; it certainly will not do it through merit-based aid. Students in the sciences and engineering can qualify for the more generous Millennium Scholars program. Penn State has also long-maintained a practice of making supplemental merit awards for upper-class students through its schools and academic departments; the Schreyer Honors students are among the more likely candidates for such awards. Lastly, the Honors College students may receive grants for research and study abroad that other Penn State students cannot.

Are there downsides to Schreyer?

In a sense, yes. The Honors College tries to duplicate the residential college experience that students might find at Yale, at least for the freshman year. The college hosts programs that allow students to interact closely not only with faculty, but also leaders in business and other communities from outside the university.  However, one of the two halls dedicated to the honors (Atherton) is far from “fancy,” for dormitory-style living. The other, Simmons, is more what an aggressive college shopper would come to expect from an “honors community.” While students who are fortunate to get into Schreyer can use the common facilities in either hall, the Simmons students appear to have a more livable environment.

In addition, there are other honors programs that offer larger scholarships or accommodate a larger percentage of a freshman class. For example, Rutgers-New Brunswick has 500 freshmen in its year-old Honors College building alone and approximately 1,000 other honors-level students living in other halls—and Rutgers has nearly 10,000 fewer students than Penn State. The very best of Rutgers honors students can qualify for Presidential Scholarships that are equal to a full ride, including room and board and a research allowance. Penn State’s largest merit award would be $19,500/year for Schreyer students who also qualify as Millennium Scholars.

There’s far more good than bad. So what’s the catch?

Just under a fifth of the prospective students who want to come to the Schreyer Honors College are offered admission. Those who get in want to come; the yield rate is nearly 60 percent. The percentage of residents to non-residents is 70-30, same as the University Park campus as a whole.

If you’re a very bright student who is already sold on Penn State, its worth the effort to apply.


First Impressions: Fairfield University (CT)

This past spring I had the opportunity to visit Fairfield University, one of the youngest Jesuit universities in the United States. Founded in 1942, Fairfield has become a mid-sized university with 4,000 undergraduates and around 1,200 graduate students. I spent a day on campus to gather First Impressions and collected photos of campus and community to make a Pinterest page.

There is much to like about Fairfield University. The campus is quite attractive. So is the surrounding community; the campus is only a mile from Long Island Sound. Juniors and seniors have the option to live by the beach, something they might not be able to afford during the first years of employment after graduation. The university has a strong regional alumni network and aggressively supports students who seek internships as well as full-time employment after graduation. This test-optional school also does an impressive job of  graduating a class. It’s really hard to fault the school, except for costs. However, Fairfield graduates who earned their degrees in 2014 who borrowed owed, on average, less than their peers at similar schools, excluding Boston College.

Fairfield University is much like Boston College or Villanova, a well-connected Catholic school in a very nice community with a large city nearby within easy commuting distance by train, only without the high-profile athletic program.  While the Fairfield student might not have the same test scores as their peers at Boston College or Villanova, s/he does have very similar motivations and can build upon a similar success story.

Report Card for Fairfield University:

  • 4-Year/6-Year Graduation Rates: A/A
  • Freshman Retention: B+
  • Costs: C+
  • Curriculum: A
  • Community: A
  • Comforts: A
  • Connections: A

Check out my First Impressions of Fairfield University!

Check out my Fairfield University Pinterest Page!