What are the best measuring sticks to determine the excellence of a university? Some might say the quality of the faculty. Others might use the academic excellence of the student body. And there would be those who might say the excellence of the library and research facilities is a vital element in a superior university.
It's likely all of these factors, plus many others, such as the level of fiscal support of the school, combine to make up the mosaic of an outstanding university.
Do these super schools turn out better-educated and better-qualified graduates? Do faculty members at these schools do a better job of teaching? And does their research add more to the betterment of the society? Do the so-called elite universities offer more positive spinoffs to the cities and states in which they are located?
Earlier this week, USA Today announced its 1995 high school "All Academic Team." The newspaper, based on the opinion of 12 judges, all of whom have backgrounds in education, selected 20 high school students from throughout the country as the most outstanding talents in the nation's high schools.
One of the judges said the 20 students on the 1995 All-USA Academic First Team plus students on the second and third teams and the 76 who earned honorable mention were "doing more to help society than any group" of students he had judged in previous years.
Of the top 20 young men and women, 12 said they intend to enter Harvard University. Other universities chosen by these super-talented and super-motivated first-team high-schoolers included Princeton, Georgetown, Duke, Stanford, the University of Iowa and Millsaps. Duke was the only university, aside from Harvard, selected by more than one of the high school All-Americans. Two of the students indicated they planned to enroll at Duke.
It would be interesting to know whether the same percentage of the second, third and honorable mention teams intend to enroll in Harvard, Duke, Stanford, Princeton or some other "prestige" school.
The report shows that, in this particular instance, a high percentage of the nation's brightest young men and women want to attend schools such as Harvard. And, because these high-schoolers select a Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, etc., chances are they will become loyal, enthusiastic alumni of these schools. In their professional careers, they probably will become supportive of these institutions where they received their college education. Likewise, chances would seem good that a high percentage will remain in the geographic regions of these schools when they complete their undergraduate or graduate studies.
This means the level of excellence in education, business, medicine, research and other fields will be enhanced by these young people as they enter the professional world.
It's a win-win situation for the schools and the areas around the schools.
In states such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, there is much concern about how to encourage the bright young men and women of these states to remain in their home states for their college education. The "brain drain" is a serious problem. In Oklahoma, for example, state legislators realize the importance of such efforts, and the state provides a handsome tuition package for National Merit Scholars who stay in the Sooner state to attend one of the Oklahoma universities. There is no such program in Kansas.
Time and again, various people speak out on the importance of encouraging outstanding Kansas high school students to remain in Kansas to attend college. But rather than provide incentives such as state-assisted tuition for the truly gifted students, or improving salaries for truly outstanding faculty members, or providing more money for libraries and research programs, state legislators seem to look upon higher education as a prime target to cut state spending. They also refuse to approve a qualified admissions policy for Kansas high school students who want to enroll at Kansas University, Kansas State University or Wichita State University. "Excellence" in higher education doesn't seem to command much attention by Kansas legislators.
It will be interesting to note how many Kansas high school students named as this year's National Merit Scholars will decide to remain in the state for their college education. Likewise, it will be interesting to note the number or percentage of Oklahoma National Merit Scholars who remain in Oklahoma due to the state's fiscal scholarships.
Some may suggest the number of superior students attending a given university really isn't that important. However, for one reason or another, the so-called best schools seem to attract the best students, the best faculty, the largest libraries and the greatest private fiscal support. Excellence in one area seems to breed excellence in other fields within the really good schools.
This doesn't mean schools such as KU can't measure up and that students, faculty and library facilities at KU are inferior to those at many of the name schools. In many cases, KU students are just as good, if not better, than many in the Ivy League or other prestige schools -- and the same is true of the faculty.
But at the same time, it must be recognized, as evidenced by the selection of colleges by students profiled as the 1995 high school academic All-Americans, it is difficult for schools such as KU to attract the truly gifted students when competing against colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. This is particularly true when students who may wish to attend KU are offered much larger scholarships elsewhere.
It is a complicated and difficult challenge:
- How to find money to provide scholarships to attract and hold the state's truly superior students.
- How to find the money to provide faculty salaries at a level that will hold and attract gifted teachers and researchers rather than lose them to other schools.
- Convince state legislators, the Kansas Board of Regents and taxpayers that such efforts focused on improving the excellence of the state's university system will enhance and improve the economic environment in Kansas.
Consider the possible payoff to Kansas if five or 10 years from now a good number of the nation's top 20 high school academic All-Americans, and most of the state's National Merit Scholars, were to select KU as their college? It's an exciting possibility, but do Kansas leaders want to make excellence in higher education one of the state's top priorities?