An Evaluation of Virginia Tech’s Visioning Initiative

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After combing through hundreds of pages of documents detailing Virginia Tech’s plans for the future, Ian Beskin breaks down the merit of the university’s goals.
By Ian Beskin, Staff Writer Contact the Writer

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Photo by Erica Corder.

The present has become fixated on the future. With the advent of Big Data, historical analysis has made way for predictive modeling and organizations around the world have followed suit. In that vein, Virginia Tech is stepping forward with a vision of what the future holds.

In an effort to to improve on an institutional level, Beyond Boundaries, a one year visioning process that aims to reflect on Tech’s successes and failures and compare them to other top universities for the sake of growth, has begun self-examination to perfect a university that can create the students of tomorrow. The Beyond Boundaries website presents a wealth of information about past and current trends within international higher education as well as detailed plans for Tech. Two broad goals driving the university are to become a globally-recognized land-grant institution and to strategically address the changing elements of higher education.

Tech makes exceedingly clear its intent to become a globally recognized university. A whole subcommittee is dedicated to the idea of a “global-land grant.” It’s unclear exactly what that means, but the general idea is a university that views the dissemination of knowledge and research as a public good, acts as an incubator of discovery, and prepares its students for addressing global issues. If you go to the “about” page on their website, you can find the word “global” seven times. We get the idea.

To that end, the Beyond Boundaries Committee decided to use Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings as a benchmark for university rankings due to its frequency of citation and international recognition. The Visioning Initiative White Paper is one of the first documents produced by the committee, outlining a general strategy for Virginia Tech in 2047. On the topic of rankings, it cites a study: “‘Although rankings are controversial in terms of what they measure, how, and why, they remain popular as an easy-to-understand performance metric’ (Rauhvargers, 2011).”

Think of college rankings like SATs. There is a plethora of research arguing that standardized tests are not indicative of success in undergraduate or graduate school. The National Association for College Admission Counseling performed a study of 33 diverse universities with optional testing policies to see if students who submitted standardized test scores earned higher GPAs or graduated more frequently than students who opted out. The study found statistically no difference between submitters and non-submitters in both GPA and retention rate. The takeaway from this is that students who happen to perform worse on the SAT, for example, are no less qualified to be in college. In other words, “objective” measures like standardized tests are not as significant as they are made out to be.

Nevertheless, the SAT and ACT provide a comprehensible and (superficially) objective way of measuring a student. Their ease of use is a primary reason for their widespread application. Numbers are so appealing to universities because they have to read tens of thousands of applications. Standardized testing allows universities to rule out some particularly poor testers, even if no university will admit it. Furthermore, universities can maintain their appearance of fairness during admissions by citing that one student’s score was simply higher than the other. There is no ambiguity, which is perfect for a college admissions panel pressed for time. Standardized tests, or university rankings for that matter, are flawed, but there are some tests that, although imperfect, are paramount to recognition and the Beyond Boundaries committee recognizes that.

Photo by Erica Corder.

Photo by Scott Beaubien.

Kate Preston Keeney, project director for Beyond Boundaries, noted that “people do look at those rankings, even though they’re not good measures of what we’re doing.” She added that the rankings themselves are not the goal. Rather, they are an outcome of an institution-wide effort to “create an even more robust name for Virginia Tech.”

Rosemary Blieszner, co-chair for Beyond Boundaries, alumni distinguished professor, and associate dean of the Graduate School, commented that this steering committee is “looking much farther into the future”—as far as thirty years. “What are students of the future going to be like?” Blieszner asks. The wealth of research on the Beyond Boundaries website searches to answer that question as well as how the university will respond to changes within higher education.

Among many prominent trends is the increased importance of online education. As the Visioning Initiative notes, the number of students in higher education is expected to “increase [by] 314%,” lending itself to online education, which is less burdensome on physical space than traditional brick and mortar classrooms. An opportunity noted by the Dec. 7, 2015 Steering Committee Progress Report is to expand the use of online, hybrid, and flipped classrooms. Virginia Tech’s application of online forms of education makes it well positioned to adjust in the future. The report mentioned the decreased necessity for a physical learning space, now that students may learn and collaborate in virtually any place with internet connection.

The question remains though, is online education beneficial? Princeton University released a Strategic Review of Online Education, revealing that students were split almost exactly 50/50 about whether online components added anything to their education. Additionally, the faculty held widely diverging viewpoints about whether online classes helped their own teaching.

Moreover, Virginia Tech students may not even want more online education. Taking a class at the Math Emporium at University Mall is a frustrating experience for many, myself included. Hopping on the bus, taking a six question quiz, and taking the bus back can easily demand over an hour.

Angie Green, a former student in Math 1525 and 1526 at the Math Emporium summarized her Empo experience in a single quote: “Nothing to like about it. I hated every single moment from having to get there to coming back, and the fact that it’s just such an awful environment. It’s so dismal and it’s really a sad place.” On the side of content, Angie noted that “the text was really hard to follow” and “the modules didn’t teach you anything.”

Still, Meredith May, a mining and minerals engineering major and alumnus from the class of 2010 who took Math 1114, Introduction to Linear Algebra, had a different opinion of the Math Empo. She remarked that taking a class at the Empo “helped add self imposed structure. Not as many deadlines, up to you to set your own pace and set your own schedule.” She further noted that the class took less time holistically and the Math Empo tutors were helpful to the point of not needing a full time instructor. Overall she enjoyed taking the online math class and found that it added value beyond her typical classroom experience. The math empo debate rages on.

The steering committee performed an analysis of THE’s World University (overall) Rankings as well as their unique sub-measures to determine areas in which Virginia Tech can improve. Keeney said the goal of “attracting and retaining talent” would help Tech “advance as a global land grant institution” and “strategically address the challenges and opportunities of higher education.” She noted the idea of what she called pockets of excellence. “We do a lot of things well, maybe in small pockets throughout the university,” she explained. The steering committee is designed to emphasize those strengths and counteract the university’s weaknesses.

One of the primary obstacles will inevitably be funding. The Funding and Cost Committee Summary states that the “Virginia Tech endowment stands at approximately $800M,” and “the university is last in alumni giving participation, which stands at only 9%, when experts consider 18-25% typical.” Both are “near the bottom when ranked among our fundraising and academic peer groups.” The funding summary merely stated that more research would be necessary to determine the reason for the low alumni donation rate. This is pretty shocking considering the so-often cited Princeton Review ranking that Virginia Tech students are the second happiest in the nation. These raw number rankings are still ambiguous, but Tech champions this one. Nevertheless, the school can’t seem to turn positive emotions into real donations. Encouraging alumni donation and effectively using funds will clearly be a major concern moving forward.

Adding on to the issue of funding, Blieszner said that Tech “has received less per student than mandated by the Code of Virginia.” The funding summary has made a goal of achieving a $2B endowment over the next ten years by tripling the fundraising from $80M to $240M per year, emphasizing research that attacks “big problems” to encourage larger donations, and improving investment returns.

Photo by Scott Beaubien.

Additionally, analysis of THE’s metrics highlighted two major areas in which the university must improve to impact their ranking: citations and international outlook. The international outlook score aligns with Tech’s goal of becoming a globally recognized institution in some ways, but the two aren’t exactly correlated. The international outlook scores measure international co-authorship as well as the ratio of international to domestic students and faculty. Gaining international recognition will improve both of those categories, but the Beyond Boundaries committee’s goal is much broader.

The university strives to create students that have global experience and understanding, separate and apart from its reputation in the international community. “In 2047, Virginia Tech will require all students to complete at least one multi-semester long experiential/participatory learning activity,” states the Steering Committee Toolkit. Blieszner mentioned that students “can have these global perspectives in your regular classes,” noting the importance of an interdisciplinary, experiential and global learning experience.

The final major area of improvement indicated by THE analysis is citations. The number of citations increases with co-authorship in multiple fields, co-authorship with members of other universities, and, notably, co-authorship with people in other nations. Furthermore, the Beyond Boundaries Characteristics of Top THE Universities paper noted that free access to articles increases citations by 50%. The paper discussed creating “an open repository of publications so that individuals have access to the articles for free,” as well as translating research so that it may be understood without the relevant technical background to that end. The issue appears to be primarily with gaining recognition for the research done at Virginia Tech, not the research itself, as the university’s research score was consistently 3.6-4.8 points above the THE average.

Having said that, the Visioning Initiative states that “many respondents during the Virginia Tech Presidential Search felt that the university’s increased focus on research has had a negative impact on the quality of teaching and learning.” Blieszner said that “quality of teaching and quality of research go hand in hand,” and that one has not been emphasized over the other. Nevertheless, the university continues to accept increasingly large first-year classes despite the fact that its teaching score is slightly below average in comparison to the THE top 200. Tech’s teaching scores for the 2011-2012, 2012-2013, and 2013-2014 years were 0.9, 3.2, and 3.6 below the average respectively. The differences are relatively small, yet they do indicate that Tech has room to improve.

Moreover, a hallmark of prestigious universities is a relatively low acceptance rate. The class of 2019’s acceptance rate was almost 73% and amid funding concerns, perhaps it is tenable that incoming class sizes are growing. What doesn’t make sense is overemphasis on global recognition when Virginia Tech isn’t even getting significant national and regional attention. Tech received only 22,500 applicants for the Class of 2019. It may sound like a lot, but placed next to the likes of “peer institution” UC Berkeley at 82,539, it’s way below par.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia designates similar peer institutions for Virginia universities to serve as a benchmark. Among 24 designated peer institutions including the University of Michigan, Penn State, UC Berkeley, and others, I was able to find information on 22 of them. Every single university had a higher number of first-year applicants — transfers excluded. The closest a school got to dipping below Tech’s 22,500 was the University of Buffalo, at 24,444 applicants.

Perhaps what the university needs more than international presence is just a better national marketing strategy. A more intuitive website, greater outreach to out-of-state students, and more public press of the genuinely awesome research happening on campus would all be great places to start. Notably, just revamped their website and VT News emails are better designed than they have been in the past. It appears that Tech is already taking steps in the right direction, but only time will tell how successful they are.

Most curious of all is the fact that Virginia Tech hasn’t adopted the Common Application. The Common App is a single application that is accepted by 600 colleges and universities around the world. Each university that is a member of the Common App has its own unique questions and essays, which allow the schools to see if a prospective student is a good fit, but the majority of the application only has to be completed once. The Common App receives 3.5 million applications each year from 850,000 students. This streamlined process is an immense time saver for students. How much talent is Virginia Tech losing out on simply because of an unoptimized application process? It’s very possible that prospective students are refraining from applying to Tech not for any fault of the school, but merely as a result of of the added effort required to fill out another full application.

Utilizing the Common App isn’t just a tool to receive more applications and thus lower the acceptance rate either. By encouraging more people to apply, Virginia Tech will be able to attract more qualified candidates and add value to the university in the long run. This transition would require some work, but it would create a great deal of value for the university optically, and pragmatically, lowering the 73% admission rate and attracting better students. At any rate, the Common App is used in fourteen countries and would be another checkbox the university can fill on its way to becoming a globally recognized land grant institution. Sometimes, the best solutions are also the simplest ones.

At the end of the day though, the fact that Beyond Boundaries exists is incredible. Most universities, companies, government institutions—you name it—never even perform the kind of self-reporting that Beyond Boundaries is doing, much less release it to the public. For all of the criticism about Virginia Tech’s flaws, it’s earnest desire to improve the quality of the university for future generations of students and faculty is inspiring. As the Campus of the Future February 12, 2016 paper wisely states, Technology that was “cutting-edge” is middle of the pack five years later and considered obsolete after 10 years.” In much the same fashion, the steering committee’s plans that are revolutionary today can become trite tomorrow. Fortunately, the Beyond Boundaries committee is prepared to adapt and evolve right alongside the university.

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About the Author

Ian Beskin

Ian Beskin is a freshman double majoring in finance and accounting, serving as the business manager for The Pylon. He spends a lot of time reading, watching movies, and worrying about the future. Ian would like to become an investment banker several years down the road, get an MBA, and move to New York City.