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Spending per student at the University of Oregon is among the lowest in the American Association of Universities

The University of Washington, University of California-Berkley and University of Michigan — all three of these institutions are considered among the top public research schools in the country. Along with the University of Oregon, they belong to an elite group: the American Association of Universities.

But an inaugural report benchmarking performance released by UO interim Provost Scott Coltrane shows the university is among the lowest of its peers. Put side-by-side with the other 33 public schools in the selective group, Oregon is out-performed in a number of areas including six-year graduation rate, student to tenured faculty ratio and average spending per student.

Oregon ranked below average in more than half of the 22 metrics from the 2010-2011 year, ranking dead last in all three of the above categories.

Over the same period, Oregon spent an average of $29,532 per student — almost $2,000 less than the next school, Indiana University at Bloomington, and less than half of the AAU average at approximately $60,000 per student.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — a key comparative institution according to the OUS — spent $86,337 per student in the same year.

Oregon also had a high student-to-tenured faculty ratio over the last five years, averaging 34 students per teacher, compared to the AAU average of 22. In 2011, Oregon’s ratio of 35:1 was 12 students over the AAU average of 23:1.

The average six-year graduation rate ranked poorly as well at 66 percent in 2011, or 32nd of the 34 schools. Oregon has consistently remained 10 percent lower than the five-year AAU average of 78 percent.

In terms of affordability, Oregon is slightly below average in cost of attendance. A resident undergraduate student paid about $8,800 to attend the UO in 2010-2011. That’s almost $1,000 less than the median cost of $9,500 charged by its AAU peers.

“Graduation rates, access and quality all need to improve,” Coltrane said. “The final metric of the report shows clearly that one of our first goals must be to find the funds to pay for these strategies.”

Coltrane also points out that higher graduation rates at other institutions could be a measure of student selectivity.

Though the numbers appear ominous, both Coltrane and former UO president and current professor Dave Frohnmayer stress that the report compares Oregon to elite research institutions, many of which have increased federal funding and per-student expenditures due to their affiliations with hospitals and farms.

Despite the gap in the type of institutions that comprise the AAU, Frohnmayer sees the UO’s membership status as an important distinction of quality.

“It is the premier organization of American research universities. It’s the association to which every university worth its salt aspires to membership, so it’s very coveted,” Frohnmayer said. “Membership is a proxy for the university’s excellence, so it means a lot, in my view.”

Although the rankings show many areas for improvement, the numbers weren’t all bad for Oregon — the report demonstrates a higher than average ratio of female faculty, number of books published by faculty and private donations solicited.

AAU Public Affairs Vice President Barry Toiv would not comment on the possibility of Oregon losing membership as a result of  below average metrics — it is standard practice for the AAU to not comment on the status of member institutions.

In determining the admission of a new school to the AAU or assessing existing members for renewal, the organization uses a rubric of membership indicators that include measurements of an institution’s federal research funding, faculty awards and attributed research citations.

According to the benchmark report, the UO’s standing in these categories is marginal.

In terms of federally funded research, Oregon ranks 27th among the 34 schools in the AAU and last among its eight OUS peers. Over the last five years, Oregon has received $250 million less per year than is typical for a public school in the AAU — in 2010-11 Oregon received only $78 million compared to the $317 million averaged by peers.

In terms of faculty grants and awards, the UO scored worse than 50 percent of AAU institutions with only 855 grants and 313 awards per 1,000 faculty members, compared to the norms of 1,018 and 395, respectively.

Although Oregon faculty publish an above-average number of books — 663 per 1,000 faculty members in 2011 compared to the average of 508 — the average number of times their works were professionally cited ranked below 75 percent of peer institutions.

­­Though Coltrane agrees that the report raises concern about the UO’s ability to maintain its status among similar universities, its purpose was to provide an accurate comparison to identify and start to remediate areas for improvement.

“The report does raise concerns about the UO staying in the AAU,” Coltrane said. “But recent events such as the creation of the university’s own governing board, our rise in the U.S. News and World Report rankings and other measurements of the strengths of our individual programs show that the institution’s momentum is upwards. There are many strategies that the institution can and will use to improve our various metrics.”

Oregon currently receives only 5 percent of the state higher education budget, the least of any school in the OUS. Oregon State and Portland State universities, the next two lowest, receive double that amount. 

Increased state support, improved grant reception and increased private funding are all ways that Coltrane hopes to see the UO’s new independent governing board generate funds to improve current rankings.

Like Coltrane, Frohnmayer points out the importance of reading deeper than the surface when interpreting the benchmark data.

“We do not have medicine, pharmacy, engineering or agriculture and so in a way the UO’s position is quite heroic … given that we start with that significant disadvantage,” Frohnmayer said. “The major problem the university has faced is the enormous and catastrophic withdrawal of state support. The fact that we’ve been able to make progress and increase federal support shows a very commendable amount of effort.”

Benchmark data raises the question of university prerogative for some students.

“It seems frustrating that we’re the flagship school and yet we are ranked dead last by the AAU, so what does that say for the state of education in Oregon?” said senior Jeremy Hedlund, proponent for tuition equity and founder of UO’s Student Labor Action Project. “That our tuition is equitable to these other schools yet we’re ranked among the lowest speaks to the priorities of our institution and makes me wonder what our tuition dollars are going to.”

Students, Coltrane says, have little to fear from the rankings.

“We’re not being out-performed in terms of what we do for our students — it’s really all about the research,” he said. “I don’t think we’re failing to give students what they need.”

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Sami Edge

Sami Edge

Sami is the Editor In Chief of The Emerald. Former intern at Willamette Week and aspiring international investigative reporter. Swimmer, writer, dreamer, reader, thinker, explorer and drinker of strong coffee.