Letters - Fall 2011

October 1, 2011

What Matters Most?

In the last issue of Baylor Magazine, we asked the question: "Why does the world need Baylor?" We were eager to hear your responses, and when they started rolling in, we were very pleased both by the quantity of replies and the variety of respondents.

We heard from alumni of all ages, graduates of every decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. The 2010s were well-represented, too, as several recent grads and current students chimed in. Parents, professors and Baylor staff members rounded out the entries.

Respondents described the need for a school like Baylor that produces "citizens and leaders who have integrity, moral strength, a life of faith, a lack of greed and the courage to act." A university that "nurtures and encourages her students to find God's call and listen to it."

They described Baylor's distinct niche as "a place where academics and religion do not merely coexist but support one another." One writer called Baylor "the only university in the country that offers the depth and variety of educational experiences one expects from a large research institution while fostering the vibrant Christian community one would expect to find only at a much smaller university."

For more on these responses, read "Why the world needs Baylor."

Feeling good about the alma mater

The answers we received confirmed what we already knew: Baylor alumni care deeply about this institution and believe strongly that Baylor's offerings have a distinct and significant impact on the world.

The level of satisfaction of Baylor alumni is evident in a host of ways. Many alumni send their own children to Baylor a generation later (in fact, more than a quarter of this year's freshmen class reports a legacy connection to Baylor). Crowds at Floyd Casey Stadium, the Ferrell Center and other venues continue to grow as alumni show their support for Baylor athletics. Throngs of returning graduates line Fifth Street each year for the famous Baylor Homecoming Parade.

An independent, national survey of Baylor alumni conducted last fall found that a whopping 96 percent of alumni hold a positive view of the university. The survey found 95 percent of alums said they are proud of their Baylor degree, and 84 percent said they have a strong connection to the university.

According to another popular measure of alumni sentiment, however, a key number for Baylor is much lower -- only 14 percent.

Perception vs. Reality: Participation equals satisfaction, or does it?

That 14 percent figure represents Baylor's most recently reported alumni participation rate -- a figure U.S.News and World Report uses to gauge alumni satisfaction. Alumni participation rates are based on the percentage of living alumni who have made an annual financial gift to the university, averaged over a two-year period (i.e., the 2012 participation rate of 14 percent is an average of alumni giving during fiscal years 2009 and 2010.) The results reveal an expansive gap between how Baylor alumni say they feel about the university and how those feelings lead alumni to invest in the university's future.

Alumni participation contributes to Baylor's position within national college rankings -- like those produced by U.S. News -- because it is considered a reflection of the affinity graduates have for their alma mater.

"The people at U.S. News are looking to see if this was a valuable experience for alumni," says Brad Wolverton, a senior editor for The Chronicle of Higher Education. "By demonstrating that alumni still give to the institution, they are showing they support the work of the institution beyond what they got out of it when they were there for their degree."

With a highly recognized rating system, U.S. News rankings have the potential to positively or negatively influence a university's recruiting and reputation -- which can directly affect alumni and the perceived value of their degrees.

"When your resume comes across someone's desk, they see Baylor and say, 'Oh, Baylor's a great school,'" Wolverton says. "It has a good reputation anyway, but if Baylor moves into an elite category (in the rankings), that helps everyone who went there."

Although Baylor's participation rate is lower than expected given alumni pride in the university, it is not far off from national averages reported for colleges and universities around the nation. Among other Texas schools, Baylor's number lines up about the same as UT's 14 percent, Texas A&M's 21 percent and TCU's 18 percent.

This suggests that while an overwhelming number of Baylor alumni hold a positive view of the university, and believe that what Baylor offers is important, if not critical in the world today, those feelings have not consistently translated into annual financial support of the university.

Setting the record straight

It's important to note that as recently as five years ago, U.S. News was reporting much higher levels of participation for Baylor alumni -- as high as 34 percent in 2007. What accounts for the drastic drop to the university's current numbers? The short answer is: We made a mistake, and we corrected it.

U.S. News rankings are based largely on an institution's self-reported data. During a procedure review in 2006, Baylor determined that it had been incorrectly calculating the number of alumni who were making gifts to the university, and thus submitting inaccurate numbers to U.S. News. Simply put, the university was not adequately distinguishing "gifts" from "givers," resulting in inflated numbers that did not reflect the actual number of individuals supporting the university annually. Other changes in the accounting of gifts have also affected the totals, but the resulting data gives the appearance that our numbers used to be much better than they are today, when in fact, the earlier numbers reported were, unfortunately, inaccurate.

Since the data is self-reported, Baylor could have continued reporting numbers the old way. But that wouldn't have been right. The university has corrected its accounting procedures, and now reports figures consistent with U.S. News' definitions. Therefore, we can be sure that, going forward, the numbers we report are accurate. We just need them to climb.

Supporting what matters most

The goal in sharing this is not to challenge you to simply help improve our rankings (though it's never an unworthy effort to aim at beating our old rivals in yet another venue). The goal is to encourage you to support what matters most. If we truly believe that the world needs Baylor, then we need to provide the support that will help the university fulfill its potential.

Education today does not come cheaply, especially when you offer that education the way Baylor does. Could we make it cheaper? Sure. We could double or triple the size of most classes and have them taught by graduate students. We could cut student services, resident chaplains, support for student missions, etc., and not be burdened by students seeking help with studies or serious life issues. We could do away with programs and research that are investigating new ways to address today's most challenging issues. But that wouldn't be Baylor.

The President's Scholarship Initiative, launched by President Ken Starr last fall, is designed to help Baylor remain accessible while also supporting what makes Baylor distinct. Of the more than 4,200 donors who have supported the initiative this year, more than 1,300 were making their first-ever gift to the university. That's a good start; let's keep it going.

It's true that the world needs Baylor. It's equally true that Baylor needs you.

Randy Morrison
Editor in Chief, Baylor Magazine