While some may imagine a William Jewell liberal arts education to be unique in every aspect and comparable to none, by creating the aspirant list – a common practice among institutions of higher education – faculty, staff and administration have the opportunity to evaluate the College through comparison and with respect to a multitude of factors.
“The purpose [of the aspirant list] is to benchmark our institution against others and see where we fit, where we may look strong or weak, so things we need to work on. Its always helpful just to know how you fit in your universe, whatever universe that is,” Dr. Sallee, president of the College, said.
The practice of compiling an aspirant list is not uncommon in higher education due to the presence of similarities in how liberal arts colleges approach education, student living and success.
“Well it’s interesting in that small liberal arts colleges all look very similar on the surface, but you go about that deep and they’re different because everyone has a different history, a different culture and a different location. So they vary a lot on some elements, so I say that but then on some other elements we are very similar. Faculty tend to have very similar approaches to their work and attitudes about their discipline, the institution and students at all these places. They are at this kind of place because that’s who they are and so they are attracted to that kind of place,” said Sallee.
It is not uncommon for institutions to share their practices with each other. Whether over the phone or by visiting a campus, administration often interacts with professionals from other institutions.
“Higher education is interesting in comparison to the for-profit sector. Many companies wouldn’t think of sharing internal policies or practices with their competition. But, higher education administrators tend to work together collaboratively and there are many professional associations that facilitate this kind of collaborative environment. I regularly received calls or surveys from colleagues at other institutions asking, ‘How do you handle XYZ situation at Jewell,’ or, ‘What is your policy on XYZ at Jewell?’” said Ernie Stufflebean, associate dean of students and director of residence life.
The institutions on this list are mainly located in the Midwest, though that seems to be where a broad comparison ends. Gettysburg College in Philadelphia, Penn. has the highest cost of tuition and room/board at $47,480 and $11,340, respectively. Jewell’s yearly tuition is $31,620 and room/board $8,410.
The College’s recent addition of a graduate program, a master’s of science in education, was influenced by the aspirant list, or, as it is also called, the benchmark list.
“When we were talking about adding a graduate program, we went to that [Rhodes College] benchmark school saying ‘How does a traditional liberal arts college add something like this?’ We pulled their handbooks, we talked to them about policy,” said Dr. Dema, provost of the College.
Stufflebean also recognized the importance of aspirant institutions in the development of policy.
“We have periodically checked with aspirant institutions when drafting Jewell policy and procedures. It’s good to get a sense of how other institutions respond to similar circumstances on their campuses,” said Stufflebean.
While the aspirant list has played an important role in developing policy, such as the revision to the process of promoting and awarding tenure to faculty that occurred in 2008, the list is also utilized when institutions form long term goals.
“It’s often done at the cabinet level and so we do review the list periodically to say, ‘Okay are these still the right schools, is there anybody in the list that we don’t want to keep in the list?’ but again we are talking long term stuff. Changing the list changes how you interpret what it means,” said Dema.
This list is not usually applied to the specific programs and aims of the College but is instead applied to long term progress and the broad direction that the administration hopes to head in the future.
“It [creates] a mental environment, a background where you say, ‘So okay in this universe on this measure, we are over here, and on this measure, we are over there,’ so it just keeps you in focus,” said Sallee.
Jewell also uses a list of regional private colleges, but the administration acknowledged that this list is different than the institutions included on the aspirant list.
“We also watch regional privates [institutions], just to get a sense of where we are in the locale. We have better attributes than they do,” said Dema.
Examining each point of data found on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) website allows for easy comparison. One particular aspect of this list stands out: endowment. As of Jun. 30, 2012, Jewell’s endowment was at $62 million dollars, which is $22 million dollars more than the lowest endowment and $591 million dollars less than the highest endowment found on the aspirant list.
“Typically we are lower than the endowment of this group, so that’s something we need to grow,” said Dema.
Another large difference between Jewell and aspirant institutions is the total number of students enrolled. Furman University had the highest enrollment for Fall 2012 with a total of 2798 undergraduate students and 155 graduate students. Millsaps College had an enrollment of 744 undergraduate students and 60 graduate students.
However, Dr. Dema suggested that the purpose of the list is not purely to increase enrollment.
“We are just trying to be the best we can be within all those confines,” said Dema.
Additional reporting done by Grace Webber.