Preserve the Wesleyan Legacy of Excellence sign now

Over the past several years, Wesleyan has made renovations to its campus, appointed a new president and embarked on a new, more ambitious financial campaign.

Now, Ohio Wesleyan must begin to turn its work inward, examining what is both holding us back in the rankings. Of course, some might argue that rankings dont matter, but, given the extraordinary amount of research that points to the contrary, such pronouncements are simply intellectual laziness disguised as pride. Rankings do matter. For those scoffers who care to learn how much rankings impact the student and faculty recruitment and even the much-debated problem of retention at Wesleyan, they can see the numerous publications in the Journal of Education Policies and in the Journal of Higher Education. We shall not be able to convince people who close their eyes to reality that bites.

To Robert Frank, an economist at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University, an elite education enhances those opportunities exponentially in an increasingly stratified society. Frank argues that this is not necessarily the result of the educational process but due in part to the status that an elite ranking confers on a degree-holder. The top companies want to buy the top talent and thus are willing to pay for an elite brand while students at lesser known schools have a hard time even getting through the door.

To this end, it is important for OWU to take all the necessary measures to improve its standing among its peers. After all, we are at the very unimpressive 92nd spot among liberal arts colleges. For comparison, the other Ohio Five colleges rank as follows: Oberlin College is 23rd, Kenyon College, 30th, Denison University, 50th and The College of Wooster at 59th. Ohio Wesleyan tries to tout itself as one of the nations leading small liberal arts colleges, but the unenviable 92th position among leading small liberal arts colleges does nothing to justify such a ludicrous claim. From Wesleyan (CT) to Reed College in Oregon, colleges are examining and, in fact, engaging their constituents in online forums on how to meet their schools strategic goals. OWU does not do it.

Emphasis on selectivity is surely not about elitism. Selectivity affects increased visibility of the college to the outside media, higher retention rates, better ability to attract first-class faculty and better employment outcomes for Wesleyan graduates. All of these capture the quality of education. OWU's admissions office does not conduct any metric studies to study what kind of students apply to OWU and how it correlates with retention or any outcomes.

Hiring a few young and motivated college graduates to recruit high school students in geographic areas untapped by OWU is another effective way to attract diverse applicants. OWU recruits heavily in the same states over and over again while, by no small irony, the admissions office gripes about competing in a very competitive Ohio market. It seems like a no-brainer that one can look for bright high school students elsewhere. Perhaps more heavily on the West Coast? In fact, such strategies may improve OWUs very low percentage of minorities (excluding the declining percentage of international students).

The only dramatic change OWU can make to improve its rankings quickly is to increase its selectivity by decreasing the admissions rate. For comparison, Denison, an institution very much like ours was able to increase the number of its applicants from 3,000 to 5,000 in just one year, from 2003 to 2004 and decrease its admissions rate to less than 50\%. It reveals a smart strategy: a low-cost increase in number applications resulting in a huge increase in selectivity measures yielding more recognition for the college as a leading liberal arts school. Of the 217 National Liberal Arts Colleges listed by U.S. News in Americas Best Colleges 2004, OWU ranks 145th in selectivity. The Admissions Office self-proclaims its extensive and careful review of applicants. How careful can it be if it results in the same outcome 80 times out of 100? Ill let readers draw their own conclusions about the legitimacy of claims about the offices efficacy.
OWUs financial status is no excuse since improving its selectivity via an increase of applicants in new high school markets is a relatively low-cost strategy. At least 100 out of the 140 institutions that rank better than Ohio Wesleyan in the selectivity category are with financial resources that are far more restrictive. Even public schools in Ohio with relatively low endowments still manage to post far better numbers. This means the issue is a question of commitment and institutional priorities.

Can Ohio Wesleyan obviate this problem? Absolutely. If Oberlin, Denison, Kenyon and Wooster, all schools with similar academic reputations and financial resources can do it, so can OWU. First, it must dismiss the notion that the status quo is the optimal method of delivery: the sages of the Admissions Office should not hide behind intellectually lazy We make sure we serve our community first.

In an article for The Transcript in September of 2001, Drugovich, VP of Admissions at Ohio Wesleyan, said We most definitely are not chasing a ranking. Excellent education and a good position in the rankings are not mutually exclusive goals. Increasing student selectivity will have positive repercussions in a multitude of ways for the OWU family. Every year, OWU loses some of its most qualified applicants to other Ohio Five schools offering more generous financial aid packages. To draw the best and brightest candidates for leadership, Ohio Wesleyan requires greater financial reserves for student assistance. Therefore, the new ambitious campaign is a step in the right direction. However, to be effective, University Trustees need to complement the financial campaign with more ambitious goals about an increase in the quality of students at Ohio Wesleyan that are needed for appropriate repositioning of the University in college rankings. The bottom line: higher selectivity serves OWUs community and it is relatively cheap.

Having thrived over nearly 150 decades, OWU has been preparing young people for leadership in various fields. As various colleges are rethinking their strategic goals, so should OWU reshape its selectivity standards to serve the next generation of leaders. Our mission to train students for leadership and service has never been more international in scope. With the increase of international students in the 1980s, OWU alumni compose a global community that we continue to draw from as we help the next generation of global leaders define and address emerging issues in all spheres of our lives.

Looking to the future, Ohio Wesleyan University has great promise. And that promise is easy to describe and not so daunting to achieve. It is our conviction that we are in the enormously enviable position of needing only one thing, besides financial resources, to increase our position in college rankings: student selectivity. The fact is that many of us have had professional challenges that involved turnarounds to get back on track, recoveries from reputational mishaps, quarrels among stakeholders, major battles surrounding mission, declining relevance, lack of a vision for the future and more. Ohio Wesleyan suffers none of these afflictions. Not in 160 years have we and the role of liberal arts education in shaping U.S. and international leaders been more relevant!

We call for the implementation of the following demands:

An increase student selectivity via vigorous effort to increase the number of applications to Ohio Wesleyan and a decrease of OWU's admission rate similar to its peer institutions.
An online forum on the Ohio Wesleyan website to engage the OWU family in discussions of Ohio Wesleyan's curriculum, facilities, finances, and competitive position to assure that Wesleyan offers an extraordinary education in the 21st century.
A careful metric study conducted by the University to isolate the characteristics that were common to all students who leave the University.
A careful study "academic core" that were common to all "top 50" liberal arts colleges as rated by U.S. News and World Report, and implementation of initiatives to move us to that "academic core".

It is the future of Ohio Wesleyan University and the direction that the college is taking that we are concerned about. Imagine where OWU would stand, if it committed to a significant reduction of the admission rate. What we do know is that a better ranking, combined with more substantive self-examination, would embolden the forces that push the administration to make OWU an even better school, which is something that should matter to the entire Ohio Wesleyan family. I suggest that there is no reason why this school can not enjoy a ranking similar to the other Ohio Five schools. Our students, faculty, staff and alumni deserve as much. Now is the time to make such changes with a new president. We have a strong core on which to build, but we need some buttresses to be able to reach our potential.

The present situation threatens to bog us down in a rankings status quo that will slowly but surely undermine our mission and our quest for excellence and leadership precisely at the time when we have an opportunity, and even an obligation, to make a vigorous effort to advance the Wesleyan legacy.

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Stephanie WilliamsBy:
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President and The Trustees of Ohio Wesleyan University

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