Opinion: Amazed by ranking

Illustration Illustration

Illustration Illustration

By Friday Forum

I am amazed, frankly, that our campus hangs on to its ranking among the top 10 public universities in the nation for undergraduates. Action is required now to keep it there.

The recent annual U.S. News & World Reports college rankings, a flawed yet always compelling evaluation, shows the University ranked relatively high for its reputation within higher education, but low on indicators such as class size and financial resources, and abysmally low on the percentage of alumni who give to their alma mater.

UIUC is not primarily an undergraduate institution but instead a graduate research university. This fact simultaneously extracts a price from undergraduates and provides a major benefit.

State of Illinois funding supports the undergraduate teaching role of the campus and has been relatively strong over history. Campus leaders make the most of these resources by offering many large classes and extensive use of inexpensive teaching assistants. As a result, the University has been able to attract top young faculty with significant research potential by offering them light teaching loads, good labs and decent compensation. This is the model at most major public-research universities.

The benefit from this model is an international reputation for the campus and its graduates.

State government support is on the wane, however; squeezed by the voracious demands of health care for our poor and elderly. Today, Illinois spends almost $10 billion of state and federal dollars on this Medicaid program (more than state dollars for K-12 education).

This means research dollars and alumni giving must play larger roles, if the University is to retain high rankings.

For each dollar of a research grant, the grantor provides an additional 50 cents to cover the “indirect” overhead expenses of running our campus. Some of that indirect grant money finds its way to the social sciences and humanities that cannot command huge research grants.

The U.S. News and World Reports rankings also showed that only 12 percent of alums contribute to the well being of their alma mater. The schools ranked above the University had much higher alumni-giving rates.

I also have taught at an excellent private college – though less well known than the University. That college works hard to induce graduating seniors – every senior – to contribute something to his or her school before he or she leaves campus for good. Most do.

Two courses of action are evident.

First, the state and campus must continue investing in our research labs. Our capacity to stay on the forefront of discovery will determine the reputation of our university and enhance our financial resources.

Second, alumni must give more if we want the value of our University degree to be sustained in the future.

I offer a challenge to the senior class. Organize yourselves to contribute something – 10 bucks – to the University before you leave. Double that amount every year for as long as you can. Your investment will generate resources for the campus and also increase your attention to how well your investment is doing.

Fail at either of these courses of action and, well, we can kiss goodbye to our top 10 ranking.

Jim Nowlan

University employee