During a recent dinner gathering, several well-known and distinguished Kansas University faculty members, along with several other individuals deeply interested in the university, were discussing the general state of higher education.
The discussion may have been initiated by questions concerning the recent signing period for high school seniors being recruited by university basketball coaches. There was much appreciation and admiration expressed for KU's Roy Williams and his desire to sign only those talented basketball players who also are good students and have a good record in their personal behavior.
This led to the question of the university's aggressiveness -- or lack of aggressiveness -- in recruiting top-flight high school students to attend KU. There has been considerable discussion in recent years that KU has been complacent or has not had an effective program to encourage top high school students to enroll at KU. Many think Kansas State University has done a far better job of telling its story to high school students throughout the state and that KU has lagged.
This then led to the question of what factors cause a good or excellent student to consider one school over another. Aside from the actual recruiting process, including, for example, KU representatives visiting a high school to tell the KU story, what makes the difference?
Obviously there is no single factor, but certainly the idea of "excellence" plays a significant role. As the above-mentioned faculty members noted, some years ago, there was no question that KU was the school that attracted the students who, to a large degree, turned out to be the state's leaders in their respective fields of activity.
Today, however, KU does not have a corner on this market. A large number of the state's top high school students are being recruited very aggressively by prestigious out-of-state schools, as well as by Kansas State. Competition for superior high school students is much greater today than it was in Kansas 20 to 50 years ago.
It was the thinking of those at the recent dinner gathering that "excellence" will be the major factor distinguishing those universities that grow and excel in the academic efforts from those who try to be all things to all people.
Although it may not be a politically correct term to use, schools that adopt an elitist attitude about the students they seek and the importance they attach to good teachers are the schools that are likely to distinguish themselves in the years to come.
It was noted that KU is making a major effort to enroll a greater number of National Merit Scholars, supposedly the brightest of high school graduates. The faculty members at the dinner said that while this is an important effort, it should be realized that merely "buying" National Merit Scholars is not, in itself, going to increase the academic reputation of a university. There needs to be a strong support structure underlying the school, a determination by school administrators that excellence is, indeed, the goal of the school, that mediocrity is not accepted and that teaching at the undergraduate level by the university's very best faculty members is critical to the success of the school.
Apparently, many of the truly outstanding faculty do not teach at the beginning undergraduate levels.
Also, it was suggested that it is a mistake to place too much emphasis on the National Merit Scholars alone while not giving as much attention to those students who, but for one bad test grade, also would be National Merit Scholars.
The KU faculty members said it doesn't take long for the word to get back to the high schools whether a university is measuring up to what had been expected by recent graduates of that school. If top students are pleased by their teachers and the opportunity to be taught by some of the university's most distinguished faculty members, if the enrollment process allows incoming freshmen and sophomores to take the courses they want rather that having such courses closed out early, and if the academic environment and stimulation is what they had expected, these factors will have a significant influence on high school seniors deciding what school they want to attend.
The KU teachers stressed that to achieve such an environment at a university, there must be a clear understanding by all faculty members that excellence is the goal of the institution. And that excellence begins at the undergraduate level with superior high school students being exposed to superior faculty members.
Granted, all this costs money, but in the eyes of the faculty members attending the local dinner gathering, more dollars spent on strengthening the KU honors program would bring many dividends in many areas. These faculty members suggested the wisest use of any extra dollars would be to improve and enlarge the honors program.
They also point out it is up to the deans of the various schools to stress excellence.
President Clinton is making much of his vote-getting campaign pledge to give "every 18-year-old" the opportunity to attend college. Nothing is said about the academic ability or qualifications of "every 18-year-old" or who will pay for those students. This doesn't matter because it sounds good and probably wins votes.
But the goal of KU should not be to open the enrollment gates for "every 18-year-old" who might like to attend KU.
Rather, it would seem the gates should be narrowed and that academic admission standards should be raised to increase emphasis on excellence in undergraduate teaching.
It is good to note the number of National Merit Scholars attending KU, and efforts should be made to increase these numbers. However, it would seem equally important to be aggressive in recruiting efforts to attract students with 3.7 or 3.9 grade-point averages and to make sure the school's top faculty are in the classrooms with freshmen and sophomores.
Does KU want to be a school for "every 18-year-old" or a school that can legitimately claim to be a truly outstanding academic institution, stressing "excellence" at both the undergraduate and graduate levels?