With the appointment of a new President to SUNY Fredonia, Virginia Horvath, one of the most important jobs she will have is to promote academic excellence at Fredonia.
Over the last two decades, SUNY Fredonia has excelled in getting new buildings and expensive renovations. According to SUNY Fredonia's alumni magazine, Statement, Fredonia had the following built: Natatorium, University Commons, Rosch Recital Hall, University Stadium, Sound Recording Studio, Campus and Community Children's Center, Technology Incubator, Robert and Marilyn Maytum Music Rehearsal Halls, and the Science Center. There have also been a number of major renovations on campus. The total construction spent on these and other capital construction projects has been at least $360 million. This construction boom is an outstanding accomplishment and has significantly benefitted the campus and community.
Let me also mention that many Fredonia students are unbelievably smart and talented. For example, I've had students attend an incredible array of elite law and graduate schools, including Penn, Duke, William & Mary, Boston College, Syracuse, Rutgers, Illinois, Ohio State, and Indiana. Many of these students are equally successful in their personal lives as in their professional ones. Many of these students were better than the Ivy League students who were my classmates. Also, faculty that taught them includes many incredible people who excel at both research and teaching. The students were lucky to learn from such outstanding talent and I am lucky to work with them.
Photo by Roger Coda
Virgina Schaefer Horvath was named new Fredonia State president last week.
That said, in the last two decades, SUNY-Fredonia has lost ground in attracting better students relative to its competitors. In 1990, Fredonia was 3rd among SUNY colleges, behind only Geneseo and Oswego, in student ability. In 2011, it was tied for sixth with Cortland. Three schools passed it (New Paltz, Purchase, and Oneonta), one school tied it (Cortland), and two schools remain ahead (Geneseo and Oswego). My measure here is whether a school is higher than another in two or more of the following three categories: SAT scores for the middle 50 percent, ACT scores for the middle 50 percent, and high school grade point average.
Consider New Paltz and Purchase. In 1990, Fredonia's average SAT scores for freshmen were 70 points higher than New Paltz's freshmen and 50 points higher than Purchase's. By 2011, Fredonia's freshmen (1040-1200 SAT/22-26 ACT) scored much lower than New Paltz's freshmen (1110-1300 SAT/24-29 ACT) and slightly lower than Purchase's freshmen (1060-1210 SAT/24-29 ACT).
On a side note, Fredonia's student body also has noticeably lower scores than SUNY's major university centers and doctoral degree granting institutions, although this might be a long-standing difference. Here are the 2011 SAT ranges for the middle 50 percent of students at the university centers: Binghamton (1180-1340), Stony Brook (1170-1310), Buffalo (1120-1270), and Albany (1110-1250). Note that it is possible for a SUNY college to beat the university centers. Geneseo (1290-1370) beats all but Cornell's public colleges and they're a whole different animal.
It is unclear what accounts for changes in ranking. One college ranking reported that Fredonia admits a higher percentage of students. In a January 2011 article in Kiplinger that rates the best values in public colleges, Fredonia's admission rate (49 percent) is higher than several of its competitors, including: New Paltz (34 percent), Geneseo (35 percent), Oneonta (39 percent), Cortland (39 percent), and Brockport (48 percent). Perhaps these other schools have an advantage because they are closer to large populations or populations that are doing better economically.
It is also unclear what is going on with loans, aid, and income. Among the eleven schools (Binghamton, Geneseo, Stony Brook, New Paltz, Buffalo, Oneonta, Brockport, Plattsburgh, Cortland, and Albany) that Kiplinger ranks, Fredonia graduates have the third highest average debt at graduation and its students receive the third lowest amount of both need-based aid and non-need-based aid. Fredonia's graduates have almost $8,000 more debt than New Paltz students, $8,000 more than Buffalo students, and $4,000 more than Geneseo students. I do not know what accounts for these differences.
Data compiled by The Wall Street Journal indicates that Fredonia students also make less money (mid-career median salary) than those at other SUNY university centers and colleges. Fredonia graduates make $66,000 (mid-career median salary). This is less than its elite SUNY competitors: Binghamton ($96,000), Stony Brook ($93,000), Albany ($92,000), Buffalo ($82,000), and Geneseo ($81,000). They also make less than students at other competitors: Oswego ($78,000), Oneonta ($77,000), Plattsburgh ($76,000), and Potsdam ($70,000). This might be due to the lower pay in the Buffalo area, the fields Fredonia emphasizes (for example, education and music), or the gender balance at Fredonia, but I'm guessing. Given these possible explanations, there is no obvious need for Fredonia to address this gap.
It is unclear whether the majors that Fredonia emphasizes affect the student body's competitiveness and their average salary. According to one study by Wake Forest economist Kevin Rask, two of the majors that Fredonia emphasizes (education and music) are fields that give out some of the highest grades. In contrast, chemistry, math, and economics, give out the lowest. This pattern can be seen on Fredonia's campus. In 2010, the two education departments at Fredonia gave out A's or A-'s to 55 percent and 76 percent of its students. Music gave these grades to 58 percent of its students. In general, the majors with some of the lowest grades seem to have students with the highest IQs (see blogger Steve Sailer's estimates of actual college majors using GRE scores). I should disclose that I also give out lots of A's.
Let me state the obvious here: there are many music and education students and professors who are incredibly smart and talented and significantly better thinkers and people than most other people (including one overly opinionated philosophy professor).
Consider drug and alcohol use. On The Daily Beast's ranking of druggiest colleges, Fredonia was ranked 10th nationwide. I doubt that the rankings were scientific and don't know what produced Fredonia's impressive ranking. Given this, I doubt drugs affected Fredonia's numbers. On a side note, because drug use like alcohol use is often harmless fun, I don't think this is something to worry about.
The academic performance of the minority student population at Fredonia is an area of concern. The undergraduate graduation rate for minority freshmen is low for four years (average rate: 28 percent, 1999-2005) and low for six years (average rate: 43 percent, 1999-2004). It is unclear if this is due to students dropping or transferring out. With a push to admit more minority students, this area warrants discussion. I'd also like to make two quick points. First, I doubt this area of concern affects the above numbers. Second, many of the minority students in my class are superb students and a pleasure to have in my classes.
The new president might consider trying to increase student competitiveness in a manner similar to what was done by Geneseo and New Paltz in the last few decades. SUNY Fredonia is a strong college with a lot to be proud of and its academic standards should reflect this.
Stephen Kershnar is a philosophy professor at Fredonia State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org