Three weeks ago we talked in this space about the role of West Virginia University as our state's flagship institution of higher learning. I've gotten some interesting feedback.
Several people questioned my assertion that while WVU is a strong performing school, it is perceived as being weak compared to other flagship universities. I confess that I did not do as good a job as I should have explaining this.
To recap, I said that WVU is one of the few flagship state universities of the 50 that is close to being an open-admission institution. Most folks who graduate from high school may be admitted to WVU. By contrast most flagships have admission standards that are considered highly selective. Thus they are percieved as "elite" while WVU is not. But I should have been more thorough.
This year's edition of U.S. News "Best Colleges" lists WVU as a "national university." It is ranked in that category tied for 164th (out of 282). WVU actually climbed nine spots from last year to this year. All 50 of the flagship state universities are classed as "national universities."
WVU is tied at No. 164 with the University of North Dakota (also a flagship). That ranking places those two in a tie for 44th, best among the 50 flagships. Only the flagship schools of New Mexico, Nevada, South Dakota, Montana and Alaska rank behind WVU.
Two of those states (New Mexico and Nevada) are approximately West Virginia's size in population. The other three are considerably smaller (as is North Dakota). The flagships of eight states smaller than West Virginia are ranked higher than WVU.
One major reason WVU is low in the rankings compared to other states' flagships is that WVU's retention and graduation rates are low in comparison to them. The "retention" rate of a college or university is the percentage of a first-time class that moves on the the next class (percentage of freshmen that become sophomores, etc.).
Why does WVU have lower graduation and retention percentages than most of the other flagships? It is close to an open-admission institution. The more open the admission standards of an institution of higher learning, the lower its retention and graduation rates will naturally be.
Some WVU partisans fear that higher admission standards might mean lower enrollment there. I don't think so at all. Indeed, some of the folks admitted now would not be able to attend, but they would be replaced by high-performing high school students who now choose more prestigious out-of-state schools.
Were WVU to become a selective admission university, I think the result would be pretty much a wash. WVU would have approximately the same number of students it has now. And we could provide that anyone who did not have the grades or standardized test scores to get into WVU could transfer and be admitted if they went elsewhere and got a "B" average.
WVU staff and alumni are often inadvertently complicit in WVU's lower than necessary image. Very few WVU folks refer to WVU as our state's "flagship." They tend to call it the "land grant" school.
Firstly, while WVU is in fact a land grant university, it is not West Virginia's only one. West Virginia State University is also a land grant school.
The federal government gave a grant of land to every state in 1840 to sell to get the money to establish an agriculture college. Every state that came into the union after 1840 was also given such a grant. In addition, in 1890, 17 states that refused to admit African Americans into their agriculture college were given a second grant, this one to establish an agriculture school for blacks. WVU is our 1840 land grant school and West Virginia State is our 1890 land grant school.
Almost half of the 50 states made the 1840 agriculture college their flagship university. Penn State University (ranked sixth best among flagships) was originally called "the Farmers' High School." Ohio State University, The University of Maryland and many other highly prestigious flagships are also land grants.
But their partisans rarely call their schools "land grant" schools. They call them "flagships," because "flagship" is a much more prestigious designation. In states where the land grant school is a different institution than the flagship (Virginia, North Carolina and Kansas, among others) partisans of the flagship often refer to the land grant university as the "cow college." WVU partisans need a better sense of marketing.
All of West Virginia would benefit from WVU becoming a more prestigious university and being recognized as such.