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Flagship schools need bigger guns

By Staff | Oct 7, 2011

Our “flagship” needs bigger guns. I’m not talking military policy; I’m talking higher education policy. Our state’s flagship institution of higher learning, West Virginia University (WVU), needs some upgrades.

A “flagship” university is a state’s principal public doctoral granting and research institution. In most states that institution is also a selective-admission institution.

WVU is one of the few flagship universities (of the 50 in the nation) that is essentially open-admission. Open-admission means that anyone with a high school degree may be admitted. A selective-admission institution requires more than that, be it high grades in high school or superior performance on a standardized test, usually the American College Test (ACT) or the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

Being an open-admission institution does not mean a school is an inferior one. Judged by the improvement in performance of the average student and success after graduation, WVU is very high-performing. Shepherd University is likewise an open-admission institution that is also a high-performing one.

But WVU is considered a weak school when compared to other flagship universities because it is, practically speaking, open-admission. I say practically speaking because it has recently raised its admission standards to the point where it is somewhat selective.

But I don’t think WVU has raised them enough, and to the degree that it has raised them it has done so very quietly. So the world still perceives WVU as open-admission.

So what’s wrong with being an open-admission institution? Generally speaking, nothing. I agree with the idea that everyone should be given a chance to prove himself or herself. Indeed, some folks who struggle in high school blossom in college. But a flagship university has a larger role than just educating the folks who wish to attend.

Many West Virginians who perform exceedingly well in high school want to attend a selective-admission college or university. West Virginia has no public institution of this type to attract them. So we lose many of them to out-of-state public universities. Once they go out of state to college, they tend to stay gone.

The PROMISE scholarship was designed to keep those folks here, and it has succeeded in keeping many of them here. But having a selective-admission public university will keep many more of them here. I’m not advocating making all of our colleges and universities selective admission. Most of them would still be open admission, including one large one (Marshall University).

If we were to have a selective-admission public university, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be the flagship. But since our flagship is our largest school and therefore the one offering the greatest variety of academic offerings, it seems to me logical that it should be the one given the mission of keeping more of our “best and brightest” high school students here in our state.

Secondly, a state’s commitment to education is judged to a very great degree by the perceived prestige of its flagship university. Two questions get asked: How selective are the admission standards and how powerful is the research effort?

WVU has made significant strides in the latter category in the past few years, partly due to actions by the legislature. It needs to do more, and I’m willing to help. Additonal research dollars would indeed bring more prestige. And higher admission standards would bring greater prestige beyond what the additional research dollars would bring.

I was moved to write this column in part because of the most recent trashing of West Virginia education, this one related to college sports. The big-time college football powers are at it again, changing conferences to make more money. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) stole two members of the Big East Conference, The University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University. The remaining Big East members (including WVU) wonder if their league can survive. That same ACC stole three schools from the Big East seven years ago.

On each of these two occasions there was much speculation about which members of the Big East the ACC would find attractive. On neither occasion was WVU given much of a chance. The pens and talking heads of sports almost universally decreed that WVU’s academics were not strong enough for the ACC, which includes some very prestigious flagship universities like the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina, as well as a few very hoity-toity private schools.

I would think sports writers and sportscasters would have better sense than to comment about anyone’s “academics.” Most of these folks don’t speak or write proper American English.

Here’s an example. “The Thundering Herd have the ball on the Mountaineer 41-yard line.” Afficionados of the pigskin know that comes from this season’s football game between the WVU Mountaineers and Marshall’s large collection of buffalo (the “Thundering Herd”).

Excuse me, but “thundering herd” is a collective, not a plural, and is therefore is properly treated as singular. So it (not they) correctly “has” (not “have”) the ball. Sportcasters and writers do this all the time, yet they have the nerve to poo-poo West Virginia education.

WVU’s academic standards have nothing to do with the ACC’s lack of interest. WVU’s real problem in sports is that it’s not in a major media market. But I think it’s important to West Virginia’s economic future that we make the changes necessary to prevent future sportscasters and writers from pretending the problem is somehow related to “academics.”

West Virginia gets unfairly knocked about poor education more than any other state. We need to improve our education statistics for substantive reasons. And improving the substance will improve the perception.