The Current Rankings, and the Future, of the Concordia Universities

Let’s start with full disclosure for all you skeptics and cynics. I am a graduate of Concordia Teacher’s College (predecessor to Concordia University-Chicago), River Forest, B.A., 1979 (hereafter any reference to “CU” means Concordia University or Concordia College). I have distant relatives (second cousins or farther removed) that have served, or are serving, as faculty, staff, or regents at CU-Portland, CU-Saint Paul, CU-Mequon, and CU-Chicago. I have good friends that have served, or are serving, at all ten Concordia schools as faculty, staff, or regents. Thus it is very hard for me to be prejudiced against any school without offending a relative or friend. So in many ways, I am a “fan” of them all!

Having said that, all things are not going well in “Concordia land.” Most folks know that CU-Ann Arbor has been “adopted” in some corporate-legal way by CU-Mequon (see Reporter June 2012, pp. 1 & 7). Ann Arbor has had “for years financial, enrollment, and administrative difficulties” (ibid.). What many people may not know is that the 2010 convention resolved that a task force be appointed by the LCMS Board of Directors in order to address the serious problem of the costs of higher education at the CU schools and the seminaries (see Resolution 4-04A in 2010 Convention Proceedings, p. 120). That task force is supposed to report to the convention in 2013, so we should be hearing about its recommendations soon.

In the meantime, families are making decisions about where to send their youth to college. Is a Concordia University suitable for their college and vocational goals? Is it affordable? Are the programs and schools respected by non-LCMS folks?

Every young person considering college has to look at their own goals and resources first. If he or she wants to be an engineer, a CU school may not be for him or her, since the CU schools only offer “Pre-Engineering,” not a B.S. in an Engineering field. It doesn’t make sense for a young person to attend a university or college that doesn’t have a major in their desired field of endeavor. More significant in my mind: no young person should take on debt that they won’t be able to start repaying after graduation-and in a relatively short period of time. Financial limits for families are real and should be faced realistically, head-on, before signing on the dotted lines.

How are the CU schools ranked, or viewed by others, today? Washington Monthly 44 # 9/10 (Sept/Oct 2012) has rankings that emphasize and reward schools that contribute to society: 1) by helping persons of lower classes move up, 2) by sponsoring research to help society, and 3) by actively encouraging participation in service activity, such as Peace Corps, ROTC, or Habitat for Humanity. The rankings this year don’t list any CU school. I don’t know the reason for this, but the magazine says that it did not include schools that failed to report “social mobility factors” for the last three years, i.e., % of Pell grants in student body, graduation rates, and net price.

US News and World Report-Best Colleges, 2013 Edition is more helpful. It has lots of good advice for people thinking about college for the first time. Its rankings emphasize and reward schools that are the most prestigious and whose students have the highest academic achievement. The rankings this year list all the CU schools. One article in the front of the magazine is titled “A Plus Schools for B Students.” That article and its listings includes two CU schools, under “Regional Universities–Midwest.” Those schools are CU-Seward and CU-Mequon (see p. 27). Our other CU schools are not mentioned at all in this article.

A word is necessary on the US News and World Report (hereafter USNWR) categories. These categories and the ranking methods have changed over the years since USNWR first published its annual review of colleges. The editors have listened to their critics and now have a ranking system that is hard to criticize, unless you don’t believe that academic achievement is important. Regarding categories, “National Universities” draw students from around the country, and offer bachelor, masters, and doctorate degrees, with some also sponsoring pure research (e.g., “fellows,” corporate-sponsored, government-sponsored). “National Liberal Arts Colleges” also draw students from around the country, emphasize the bachelor degree in the arts and sciences, and have less than 50% degrees awarded in business, nursing, or education. None of our CU schools are in these two categories.

“Regional Universities” draw students primarily from their own region, and offer both bachelor and masters degrees. “Regional Colleges” draw students primarily from their own region, and offer bachelor degrees, with over 50% of those degrees awarded in business, nursing, or education. All of our CU schools are in these two categories.

If you think about the recent history of CU schools, all of the schools were “Regional Colleges” until a few started adding master degrees, I think in the 1970s. So overall, among all the CU schools, there has been growth and development that is commendable. The leaders of the individual schools and the leaders of the CU system should be given credit for that.

Here are the 2013 USNWR rankings for the CU “Regional Colleges” in descending order: Bronxville (North region), #29 (p. 103); Selma (South region), second tier (p. 106); Ann Arbor (Midwest region), unranked (p. D-65).

Here are the 2013 USNWR rankings for the CU “Regional Universities” in descending order: Seward (Midwest region), #54 (p. 94); Irvine (West region), #66 (p. 100); Mequon (Midwest region), #70 (p. 94); Chicago (Midwest region), #80 (p. 96); St. Paul (Midwest region), #93 (p. 96); Portland (West region), second tier (p. 101); and Austin (West region), second tier (p. 101).

Two years ago, First Things ran their own rankings of “church schools” that rankled plenty of feathers (see First Things #207 [Nov. 2010]). Although they did not have column reviews of LCMS schools, they did have two CUs in their lists. CU-Mequon received citation as one of several “Best Seriously Protestant School, Honorable Mention” (p. 26) and as fifth out of five “Schools on the Rise Filled with Excitement” (p. 34). Valparaiso University, not a CU school but in the LCMS orbit, was ranked worst out of five “Schools in Decline Filled with Gloom” (p. 35). I wonder where that ranking for Valpo came from, though I am not surprised.

So that is how the CU schools rate today, based on the most recent rankings available to the public. Of course, these rankings cannot evaluate individual faculty members. I know there are many CU faculty who are stellar in ability and commitment, but because of their position lack prestige, gifted students, and research-and-publishing opportunities. Such faculty have made the hard decision to sacrifice academic opportunities at other schools, because they are devoted to serving the church and its youth. Such faculty deserve the church’s esteem, thanks, honors, long sabbaticals, better pay, etc., etc. Of course, there are other faculty that bring disrepute to them all, which is a real shame (for example, see here.)

Since all of the CU schools are categorized as “Regional,” it suggests that one answer to the question of “Which CU school should I attend?”, other things being equal, is “The one in your region.” For example, if you live in the West, and both Irvine and Bronxville offer the same major, why move to Bronxville? Irvine is the logical choice for you, since the majority of its students will be from the West, it will save you significant transportation costs, and post-graduation job opportunities will likely lead to residence in the West. This is one reason the LCMS has founded and supported schools in different US regions.

On the other hand, some schools are clearly behind others in prestige and student academic achievement. CU-Ann Arbor, CU-Austin, and CU-Portland are second-tier schools according to the USNWR ranking. In the same ranking, CU-Chicago and CU-Saint Paul rank lower than their Midwest rivals: CU-Mequon and CU-Seward. For CU schools per USNWR, Irvine is the “best in the West,” while Bronxville is doing comparatively well for its size. Selma can’t be compared to the others, because of its role as a Historic Black College or University. USNWR says “Increasingly, the nation’s top historically black colleges and universities are an appealing option for applicants of all races” (pp. 44-45). Thus this year, in the “college bowl” of public rankings, Irvine, Seward, and Mequon are in the winner’s circle and can be confidently recommended to any Lutheran.

What about the future of the CU schools? The 2013 convention report will say a lot about that from a fiscal perspective, but frankly I am concerned. Almost all of the ELCA, WELS, and ELS schools are ranked higher than the CU schools by USNWR. But even these non-CU-Lutheran schools are ranked significantly lower than the big public schools or the well-endowed private schools. Will the continued lower ranking of the Lutheran schools lead to decline in their funding and enrollments? Is Ann Arbor the “canary in the coal mine”? I don’t know, but it is a concern.

Why is this happening? In Germany, Scandinavia, and the Baltics, the Lutherans had–and still have–great universities that produced some of the leading thinkers, scholars, authors, inventors, scientists, engineers, etc. in the 16th to 20th century. On the heritage and unique contribution of Lutheran universities, see my article “The Lutheran Mind and Its University” in LOGIA Reformation 2008 (You can get the electronic version for a reasonable fee here.)

Why has the LCMS produced “A Plus Schools for B Students,” to use the phrase from USNWR, but nothing more excellent academically in the 21st century? I don’t know, but I would think by now that the LCMS could have produced at least one “Regional University” that was near the top of the list or a top notch “National University.” Have we devoted our resources to quantity of schools instead of quality? These are questions that the 2013 report can’t answer, because I don’t think they were posed. Thoughtful CU faculty and academic administrators might start asking those questions among themselves. The future of the CU schools, apart from their essential function as church-worker schools, may depend on it.

For more information on the CU schools, click on these links:
LCMS — Concordia University System
Campus Majors and Programs
LCMS — Concordia University System Campuses

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