USAO: How We Stack Up, 2014

I am occasionally called upon to collect summary figures on variables critically important to USAO and our various stakeholders. Often, this involves comparing ourselves to other institutions or aggregates of the same. I recently did just this and thought I would share some of these comparisons with my readers.

The comparisons that follow are all based upon data pulled from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for the 2013-14 academic year (the most recent data available typically lags a year behind the current). Key USAO figures are compared against an aggregate of schools with membership in the Council Of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) and an aggregate of Oklahoma colleges and universities with public governance.


I pulled the cost a typical undergraduate student faces for one year of full time undergraduate study for USAO and the two benchmark groups. The numbers on Figure 1 assume in-state tuition and on-campus residence, so they are a pretty good indicator of what the average student can expect to pay. As you can see, USAO students face a substantially smaller bill when compared to our benchmark groups. On average, USAO students pay 20% less than they would at the average Oklahoma public school. When we examine the typical price of a COPLAC school we see that the savings grow to just over 40%. Please keep in mind that since we are talking about averages, the price of any individual school in these groups could be considerably higher or lower. Also, these figures do not include any financial aid or waivers awarded to students,so you could think about them as the worst case scenario bill. This figure could be an underestimate if you consider a new Ferrari to be absolutely critical to your higher education.


Full Time Enrollment

The size of a school is relatively easy to measure, but much harder to interpret. Larger schools tend to produce larger absolute numbers of graduates, and they employ more faculty and staff. However, school size also has an influence on a number of other variables that aren’t as obvious such as student/faculty ratio and minimum necessary infrastructure like residence halls, class rooms and computer labs. When we examine the full time enrollment figures (one of several ways to think about a school’s size) on Figure 2 we see that USAO is pretty tiny. The average COPLAC school is more than four (4) times the size of USAO, while the average Oklahoma public school is about twice that again. This disparity in size has significant implications for for all those factors influenced by school size.


Retention Rate

One of the more interesting intersections between psychology (my jam) and economics (not my jam, sorry Dr. Long) is on the construct of “value”. People routinely purchase goods and services, but normally they only do so when they find more value in the thing they are purchasing than in the thing they are exchanging for it. For example, this week I visited a local burger joint that I love and gave them something I value (a specific amount of money) for something I value even more (small double with onion rings). The point of this whole thing is that paying for a college education is no different at this level of analysis. Students, their parents or some other collective pays a certain amount of money on the assumption that the education they get in return is worth more than the money they are relinquishing.

This same sort of thing happens when our students pay their tuition bills, they except something of greater value in return. Unfortunately estimating the worth of a higher education is just a little bit more complex than doing the same for a cheeseburger, no matter how much cheese it might have. One of the ways we attempt this in Higher Education circles is to examine the probability a student will continue their education into the second year. This figure is called a retention rate and can be expressed in a number of different ways. Of course it is a rather simple way of capturing the quality of a school, or examining the performance of its students, but it is a figure that is widely reported and understood.  Figure 3 plots my comparison of retention rates for the schools we have been discussing. Here we see that 60% of USAO’s full time students are retained from Fall of one year to the fall of a second year. The graph also show that the average Oklahoma public school retains just 1% more of their students than USAO. I would rather USAO does better, but 1% is really not that far of the Oklahoma average. When we look at the COPLAC schools we see that they retain a great many more of their students, 15% more on average.


Graduation Rate

Another way we attempt to measure the performance of our institutions of higher education is through their graduation rates. This is essentially the percentage of students enrolling in a school that end up graduating. Like retention rate before it, the graduation rate comes in a variety of flavors and can vary pretty dramatically depending on which you choose. Figure 4 compares overall graduation rate (not the 4, 5 or 6 year) for the groups of interest. Here we see that 41% of students joining the USAO family end up getting a degree, which is 11% higher than the average Oklahoma Public School. On the other hand, USAO trails COPLAC schools by 13%.



So what does all this mean? Well, I can think of several different ways to think about these figures. We can take each comparison individually and independently of the others and this would be a good, simple way of understanding different aspects of the schools compared. However, if you take these in combination, I think we begin to see a very interesting picture. Be forewarned, while I could probably point to several bigger cheerleaders (metaphorically), I am confident I would be somewhere near the top of a list. My interpretation of what all this means is admittedly biased, but it is also not without at least some measure of validity.

If we consider the cost of attendance along with the size of these comparison schools, we get a sense of the resources available to each. Simply, more students yields more tuition dollars to convert into educational services. When wee combine these numbers with the increased tuition costs students face at other schools, we see that USAO trails pretty significantly where resources are concerned. When you combine this with the retention and graduation rate comparisons, I find USAO’s performance a remarkable one. This goes quite a long way in explaining why I am such an advocate of this school (aside from the occasional paychecks). In my opinion, USAO has done remarkably well with the resources at our disposal. We often outperform institutions that are better resourced, and where we don’t we come closer than one might expect given our economic constraints. So a huge kudos to everyone that makes USAO the tiny little juggernaut that it is. Our students, faculty, staff, alumni and regents all contribute to what I have often heard called “Oklahoma’s best kept secret.”


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