When comparisons are made, one often hears, “But you are comparing apples to oranges.” That is an almost inevitable complaint when comparing universities. They are complex organizations. Universities in a group that at a glance might appear similar will likely exhibit significant differences upon closer examination, differences that arguably produce different performance outcomes.
In the case of a metropolitan university, it is more informative to compare it to a group of other metropolitan universities than, for example, to liberal arts colleges or land-grant universities. For this purpose, UALR will now be viewed in comparison with 14 other universities that are similarly located in urban/metropolitan areas, that are committed to serving a very diverse student body including many nontraditional students, and that endeavor to be partners in solving problems and in advancing their larger communities. (Appendix A includes extensive data on students, academic programs, and finances of the institutions in the 15-university comparison group.)
Broad Institutional Classifications. Table 4-1 shows UALR to be among the smallest of these 15 institutions in student enrollment; however, UALR possesses a highly competitive academic profile as evidenced by national accreditation benchmarks. Among these 15 institutions only UALR, Cleveland State University, University of Memphis and the University of Southern Maine are accredited in business, education, law, engineering, and nursing—all five high-demand professions.
Table 4-1 also shows each institution’s Carnegie Classification, a nationally accepted typology. UALR carries the Doctoral/Research Intensive (DRI) classification, a tier embracing institutions awarding doctoral degrees and meeting other criteria. Eight of the 15 peers are DRI institutions. Georgia State University and the University of Memphis, among the largest in the group, are classified as Doctoral/Research Extensive (DRE), due to their broader doctoral program offerings. The remaining five offer the master’s degree but not the doctoral degree.
Student Characteristics. Table 4-2 focuses on student characteristics at each of the 15 institutions, and it indicates that UALR qualifies as the prototypical urban/metropolitan university. It falls a substantial distance from the median of the group of 15 in regard to these characteristics:
- 1st in percentage of female students
- 3rd in percentage of undergraduate under-represented minorities
- 1st in percentage of undergraduates 25 years and older
- 5th in percentage of undergraduates enrolling part-time
- 11th in percentage living on campus
Table 4-3 shows UALR at the low end in first-year freshmen retention rate (13th) and undergraduate six-year graduation rate (14th). Although one might expect that lower retention and graduation rates would accompany the student characteristics noted in Table 4-2, one value of the peer group comparison is that it documents that UALR should work to improve its retention and graduation rates, an issue addressed elsewhere in this strategic plan.
Table 4-4 shows that UALR students are poorer than those of peer institutions, as indicated by the percentage of undergraduates receiving the federal need-based Pell Grants (1st). At UALR they attend an institution whose support through state appropriation falls in the middle (7th) of the comparison group but whose tuition and fees are among the lowest (12th).
These peer comparisons leave no doubt that UALR provides opportunities to students who face significant barriers to achieving the benefits of advanced education.
Academic Measures. Although UALR is among the three smallest-enrollment institutions in this peer group, it fares very well on academic measures. Its accreditation record was noted above. In terms of undergraduate students-to-faculty ratio, UALR is 4th lowest in the group. A review of the mix of degrees (Appendix A-3) awarded by these peer institutions will show UALR with a well-balanced set reflecting both traditional disciplines plus programs that respond to economic and social trends. UALR ranks in the top half of these peers when technology, business, and health science degree percentages are recorded.
Only in education degrees awarded does UALR fall in the bottom half of these peer rankings. This is because two decades ago UALR chose to de-emphasize undergraduate teacher preparation programs in order to initiate graduate-level programs in education. In recent years, in response to the state’s short supply of certified teachers in a variety of fields, the university has been restoring and expanding teacher preparation programs at the undergraduate level.
Research. UALR also compares very favorably in research. Figures 4-1 and 4-2 show the records of the universities in the comparison group in winning federal research and development funds over the five fiscal years 1998-2002. UALR is 3rd in total dollars received and 2nd in dollars per full-time faculty member.
It should be noted that federal awards are only a partial measure of a university’s research activities. There are other sources of research funding such as the institution itself, state agencies, businesses, and local governments. However, federal awards data come from a third party—the National Science Foundation—which can provide uniform reporting of data across hundreds of universities.
If an institution’s performance exceeds what the fundamental characteristics of the institution would lead one to expect, it might be called an over-achiever. In light of the foregoing comparative data, one could conclude that UALR is an over-achiever in the group on the basis of these accomplishments:
- holding all applicable national professional accreditations;
- being in one of the Carnegie research institution categories;
- providing a very good student-to-faculty ratio;
- offering doctoral degrees, with 30 percent of all degrees at master’s level and above;
- offering degrees in cutting-edge sectors;
- competing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I.
Selected Planning Implications
There is not yet a gold standard for metropolitan universities. There is no shared sense of which ones are the best in the country and therefore worthy of recognition for best performance, study, and emulation. Yet study of peer group data can highlight areas deserving attention, areas in which one institution appears to be more successful or less successful than others with similar challenges.
Here are planning implications of this chapter:
- UALR should regularly benchmark itself against a group of metropolitan peers.
- The better rates of student retention and graduation at other metropolitan universities in the peer group suggest that UALR should improve its performance on these two indicators, and the comparative entering ACT scores suggest a need to focus attention on admissions criteria.
- The fact that UALR is behind two-thirds of the peer group in the percentage of students provided on-campus student housing suggests that an expansion of student housing would enhance its ability to accomplish its mission.
- Peer groups can, always be questioned on the basis of who is included and who is not. The data included here come from standard national reports which assures more consistency; even so, data are ultimately reported by individuals who have to interpret the applicable definitions and enter and submit the data. A group of 15 should be large enough to minimize the impact of inconsistencies in data reporting. Although it would generally not be appropriate to assign significance to being ranked 3rd versus 5th, in reviewing the data the median is a useful point of reference. Where does an institution stand in the group in reference to the median? The longer tables in Appendix A not only answer that question with reference to this group of 15, but also include the medians found in another familiar comparison group—the public institutions in the states covered by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).[back to text]