Formed in 1968, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has grown in leaps and bounds to become the leading university in Virginia and one of the most prestigious universities in the United States and the world (VCU Data Set 2004-2005 1). The university, which began as a community college serving the local community students in Virginia, is now an excellent and fully-fledged higher education and research institution. Its reputation of producing highly qualified students from all parts of the nation and the world has made it a giant of its former status (Hershey 1). With a population of more than 30,000 students, the university has made important strides towards making a niche for itself in the highly competitive American higher education sector (VCU 2). After admitting the highest qualified students across the nation and the world, the university has grown beyond its early days as a community college into an institution of excellence that is dedicated to producing highly qualified graduates who can compete internationally with their qualifications from VCU (VCU Data Set 2004-2005 3). The university has become more discerning and competitive when it comes to its student selection process. Today, only a small number of the students are drawn from the local population. This situation indicates growth in terms of diversity and size for the institution’s population (Hershey 1). Only the best students get a chance to study in the institution. Hence, it is clear that the institution has become more academically challenging. However, not everyone views the evolution of VCU from a small community college to an excellent global university as a move in the right direction. Instead, critics view it as a move in the wrong direction since it has abandoned its initial mandate of serving the local community students and instead taken up a more diverse and international outlook towards the provision of education (Hershey 1). In this paper, the argument is that despite becoming more academically challenging, VCU is moving in the right direction by improving graduation rates and recruiting an increasingly academically stronger and more diverse student population.
The Evolution of Virginia Commonwealth University Since 1968
In March 1968, the Virginia Commonwealth University was formed following a merger between the Medical College of Virginia and the Richmond Professional Institute. VCU was commissioned to serve Richmond’s urban population (Green 2). Indeed, the school’s main purpose was to serve the students who might have been unable to pursue a college degree. In other words, the school was formed as a community college. It served this purpose well in its early days based on how it recruited the youths of the Richmond urban area (Green 2). In 1990, the institution began a period of rapid growth where it established different faculties and courses that ensured that it could admit students from other parts of the country (Hershey 1). Prior to this move, the institution was well known for its courses in medicine and nursing, as well as the arts. In 1996, the school began offering engineering courses in various fields. This growth was in line with the school’s expansion plan towards becoming a nationally recognized institution of higher learning (VCU Data Set 2014-2015 1). During the same time, the institution embarked on major developments to increase its capacity to admit more students beyond what the local community could provide. Consequently, the move opened its doors for students from across the nation. In the subsequent years up to 2013, the school has been opening new faculties. It has also expanded the number of courses it offers to the level of making Virginia Commonwealth University a world institution of higher education (VCU Data Set 2014-2015 1). Such changes have seen the university emerge from a small community college to a big campus that can compete with other giant colleges in terms of producing the most qualified students from all over the world. Indeed, today, the university ranks highly when it comes to diversity (Green 1). In the highly competitive world of higher education and learning, institutions are finding it difficult to attract and produce qualified graduates who can compete with learners from other institutions. If universities do not invest in ensuring that they can produce highly qualified individuals who are able to adapt to the changing world, they risk becoming obsolete or producing graduates who have below standard skills, a fete which VCU has strived to avoid all costs. As will be discussed below, the evolution of VCU has been in the right direction towards becoming a national institution, despite its humble beginnings.
VCU Academic Challenges and Education Outcomes
Over the years, studying at VCU has become increasingly challenging and difficult since the requirements for excellence and quality of graduates have increased drastically. Being a global university does not come easy. It requires more than just facilities to attain the rank or identity in the highly competitive higher education environment. Currently, VCU is very selective and strict on the kind of students it admits. It majorly focuses on candidates who have a higher high school qualification for undergraduate courses. This selection has drastically improved the possibility of producing highly qualified graduates because of their higher ability to grasp new knowledge from the training that is offered at the University.
In such a highly competitive environment, it becomes very challenging for students who have to work harder to attain acceptable and competitive grades. For example, the university has a wide range of courses that include engineering, medicine, and arts among others whose requirements are very high. VCU requires students to put a lot of time and effort to achieve good results that can make them competitive in real practice after studies (VCU Data Set 2014-2015 4). The institution’s dedication to excellence is evident in the 2011-2017 strategic plan where the institution has put student engagement through high-impact academic and extracurricular experiences a key strategic action (VCU Data Set 2014-2015 5). In this case, the university’s goal is to ensure that such programs and experiences promote learning, civil discourse, and student commitment in self-reflection and creative expression, which are all important aspects of ensuring that the university produces highly qualified individuals. Therefore, the university seeks to implement the student engagement factor, the student satisfaction index, and other measurements that will ensure that it can track whether its programs are having the impact that is required for an institution to become a global academic giant.
In the process of ensuring that students can perform exemplarily, the students are not the only factor for consideration. It is important to invest in a highly qualified teaching staff that can influence the right skills and knowledge. The goal is to ensure that the students not only pass the exams but also have the right qualifications to put them on the national map as some of the most qualified experts in their fields once they complete their studies (Fadeeva and Mochizuki 250). Such an approach has been well adopted by VCU, which has employed a large number of professionally qualified lecturers who ensure that the increasing number of students is well taught in their respective courses (VCU Quest for Distinction 6). Indeed, one of the university’s strategic actions is geared towards recruitment and retention of faculty staff and senior leadership where the respective people have the skills that can facilitate learning, high-impact research, and diversity at all levels in the institution. To recruit and retain highly qualified staff members, the institution is keen on putting in place recruitment strategies that are focused on attracting diverse and productive faculty members. Further, the institution is keen on offering the staff members the opportunity for professional advancement and mentorship to enhance faculty and staff skills and talents. The university has put in place elaborate performance appraisal measurements to ensure that faculty members are actively engaged in the actual teaching. The appraisals among others include the use of student credit hours, as well as the faculty productivity index (VCU 5).
With such support from VCU, students find themselves in a highly academic and research institution where excellence is the main goal for all the population that is in the institution. To ensure that the university is an excellent research institution, it has put various strategic plans, which are geared towards improving its research profile. For instance, the university is committed to “discovering new knowledge and advancement of clinical applications by increasing and diversifying university-sponsored research” (VCU Quest for Distinction 6). This goal will be achieved through the increased expenditure on research and development. Further, the university is keen on achieving the National Comprehensive Cancer Centre award for one of its facilities, namely the Massey Cancer Centre. The university is also keen on boosting college-wide output in influential explorations, studentship, and resourceful communication. In this case, the university has put in place a central mechanism for ensuring an increase in the number of faculty members for prestigious awards.
All the above efforts show that there is no space for below-the-standard performance for both the students and faculty members. So far, the university is in the right direction towards achieving its goals of becoming an institution of excellence in all its activities, including learning, research, and development. Such efforts create the perfect environment where students can access quality learning and curriculum, which can prepare them to be among the best in terms of qualifications once they graduate.
Diversity and Graduation Rates at VCU
Virginia Commonwealth University is the most diverse university in Virginia. It is ranked 55 in terms of diversity in the country. Its population of more than 30,000 is drawn from all parts of the country and abroad. This situation has acted to ensure that the population is very diverse and ideal for learning (Green 2). Currently, the university’s population constitutes 56% Whites, 10% Asians, 17% Blacks, 5% Latinos, 3% Biracial or multiracial people, and 5% others (Green 2). Such diversity as will be discussed in this section is an important factor that has positively influenced the graduation rates at VCU.
A lot of research has been carried out to determine the relationship between diversity and education outcomes in institutions of higher learning. Such research is based on the notion that diversity in an institution of higher learning safeguards the ideal environment for students to have a sense of belonging and representation, and hence more focus on learning, higher education outcomes, and higher graduation rates (Anstine 56). According to Talbert, increasing a university’s diversity is one of the best approaches to increasing inclusiveness in academia (23). When students feel that they are considered and included, they are likely to become more engaged and hence likely to complete their four-year course. In the research, Talbert suggests a 6-point plan and approach that can ensure diversity is considered (23). The plan includes showing the positive economics of a successful inclusive environment, having diverse orientation team leaders, including self-paced diversity workshops online, having the top leadership talk about diversity, having a diversity center on campus, and lastly showing the importance of diversity (Talbert 23). These steps are important in ensuring diversity in an institution of higher learning. Diversity leads to a better feeling of inclusivity, and hence a conducive learning environment (Gurin 331).
At Virginia Commonwealth University, the university has done a commendable job towards ensuring diversity as evident from its student population composition. As recent as 1997, the university’s population comprised 71% Whites. This composition did not depict diversity, especially for a university that aspires to become a top institution of higher learning (Green 2). 15 years down the line, the university has become one of the most diverse institutions in America, although it still has a long journey ahead. Currently, with only 56% of the population comprising the Whites, the university has achieved important milestones towards becoming a truly diverse institution (Green 2).
VCU has put diversity as one of its core strategic goals as evident in its quest for attracting highly qualified students from across the regions of the country, as well as from abroad. For instance, its quality initiatives that focus on the expansion of infrastructure and more investment in research and development are geared towards attracting more and more students who are keen on receiving a top-quality education. The development of a university-wide strategic enrolment plan that focuses on enhanced diversity and quality of students at the institution is a clear indication that the university is dedicated to ensuring a more diverse and inclusive institution.
Various researches have proven the relationship between diversity and the rate of graduation in institutions of higher learning. According to Hawkins, in an ideal university setting, students are expected to graduate within the specified duration of their courses (65). However, in the United States, it is unfortunate that only 58% of the students graduate within the specified timeframe (Smith and Robin 550). In many studies, while the 4-year course is what is expected, the low rate of graduating within this time pushes the studies to be focused on 6-year graduation rates to cater for the students who postpone their education for one or two years (Raikes, Berling, and Davis 315; Gurin 332). Currently, as compared to other institutions of its caliber, VCU has a good graduation rate. While the rate is impressive compared to the situation in other institutions, it offers room for improvement. Among the universities that have a medical school and a high ranking in terms of research, VCU has one of the highest 1st-year student retention rates at 85%. The University of South Florida and the University of South Carolina are the only institutions that have surpassed VCU (VCU Quest for Distinction 9). Such a high rate of first-year retention is a clear indication that the university has one of the best environments for students who are willing to continue their studies at the institution. The 6-year graduation rate stands at 49%, which is the third-highest among the universities that have been considered in the ranking. From the above statistics, it is evident that the university has done a commendable job in terms of ensuring high graduation rates, which can be attributed to its high diversity, robust student welfare activities, and high faculty staff involvement in student learning and activities among other factors. However, there is room for more growth, especially in terms of diversity. Such an achievement will ensure higher graduation rates, which will cement the university’s position as a premier institution of higher education.
VCU’s Selective Student Admission and Student Outcomes
Academic excellence is a critical factor for determining the ranking of a university among the best in any education sector (Anstine 58). In the process of achieving high academic excellence, the students are a key factor. Students who have higher academic capabilities are more likely to perform better than others. Virginia Commonwealth University has utilized this criterion over the years in its quest for becoming a top university in the country, as well as internationally (Martin, Galentino, and Townsend 221).
In the institution’s 6-year strategic plan, namely Quest for Distinction, the focus on admission of students with high-school qualifications has been emphasized. Indeed, the university is keen on admitting students who can make the institution capable of producing highly qualified and competent graduates who are ready for the workplace demands. According to the university’s 6-year strategic plan, the college is keen on enrolling and holding brilliant and diverse scholars. To ensure that this goal is achieved, the university is keen on recruiting students who are at the 75% percentile for SAT, GRE, and professional school entrance exams. Further, the university puts high consideration on students who attained a high-school GOA score of 3.33 and above.
According to Hawkins, students’ high-school scores, as well as the entrance exam performance, are important indicators of the student’s performance at the completion of the university course (72). Further, in a highly research-oriented institution, students with higher scores and academic capabilities are likely to not only perform better but also understand the concepts that they are trained in (Fadeeva and Mochizuki 254). As an institution that focuses on becoming globally recognized, innovativeness is a very important goal for VCU and hence the reason for its focus on students who have higher education capabilities and talent. These aspects ensure that the university can be at the forefront not only as an excellent institution for highly qualified graduates but also as an excellent institution in terms of innovation (Smith and Robin 552). From the above expositions, it is evident that VCU has drastically changed over the years from a small community college serving the students of Virginia only to becoming one of the largest and most diverse universities in the whole of Virginia and the United States. The enormity of its facilities, students’ population, and diversity are key indicators of the university’s status as an excellent academy. The university currently serves students from all over the country, as well as internationally. This achievement makes it a truly diverse institution.
Counter Argument: VCU No Longer Serving its Original Purpose
The evolution of VCU from its former status as a community college to its status as a global academic giant and a reputable research institution has not gone without criticism. In his commentary titled, Back to Old School, Hershey says that the university is unrecognizable from its former status and that it has lost its ability to serve its former purpose of serving the local community students (1). According to Hershey, currently, the university is “full of ambition, pretension, and the struggle for status” (1). This situation has seen it shift from its purpose of serving the local community to a new purpose of becoming an excellent university that serves people beyond its former reach. With the university becoming more selective when it comes to getting students who join it, the disadvantaged young people from the local community can no longer join it as easily as it was initially before its expansionist ambitions were unleashed. The university has undertaken some measures that have put the local population at a disadvantage. It has put strict measures, which determine who gets admission and/or who does not. Such measures, which include high scores for high school qualifications and an entrance exam, mean that many aspiring students from the local population are left out. Its strategic goals are not also considerate of the plight of the local population.
However, the above counterarguments are anti-progress. They are not accommodative of change, which is inevitable. Like an organism, an organization should change over the years to reflect the changing dynamics in its environment. In this case, VCU has changed in response to the changes in the education sector. Its ambition of becoming a giant academic institution is an aspiration, which all institutions share in the strategic goals. Concisely, claiming that the institution is no longer serving its former purpose is very short-sighted. Instead, the university has broadened its mandate. The qualified local population is never denied an opportunity to join the prestigious institution.
From humble beginnings as a community college, VCU has evolved to become one of the biggest and most prestigious universities in the United States. The changes that have occurred at the university over the years are a clear indication of an institution that is committed to continuous improvement in its activities, and most importantly, education. The ability to offer high-quality learning and an excellent research and development environment is a clear indication that the university’s evolution has allowed it to move on a path towards academic excellence. In the process of evolution, the university has invested heavily in educational facilities. It has put in place strict admission rules. Besides, it has sought to employ highly qualified faculty staff members to ensure that achieving excellence is inevitable. The criticism that relates to the fact that the institution has deviated from its initial purpose of serving the local community in Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) may be valid. However, it does not consider the fact that any organization must change and/or evolve. Succinctly, the evolution of VCU has been in the right direction, and that its status as an excellent university is a clear indication of the achievements it has managed to get.
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