Alabama outpacing LSU on gridiron, in classroom

LSU's Memorial Tower is shown on the left, and Alabama's Denny Chimes appears on the right.
LSU's Memorial Tower is shown on the left, and Alabama's Denny Chimes appears on the right.

Not only is Alabama outpacing LSU on the gridiron, it is also pulling away in the classroom

— When it comes to LSU and the University of Alabama, it’s a great rivalry on the football field. But when the stadium lights go off and the two schools are compared academically, Alabama looks to be pulling away.

Alabama could boast that it is in the midst of an academic growth spurt and is attracting more of the prestigious National Merit Scholars than any other public university in the country.

LSU could counter that it is generally regarded as a more well-rounded university with greater course offerings available at a more affordable price.

What can’t be argued is that both schools have absorbed potentially devastating budget cuts over the past several years. While LSU is trying to hold onto what it had before the economy went south five years ago, Alabama prospered during the economic downturn, gaining momentum as the university increased the quality and quantity of its students and faculty.

Late last month, graduate student Nick Bertella was walking down The Strip, the section of University Boulevard that connects downtown Tuscaloosa with the University of Alabama campus. While mobs of shouting sorority women crisscrossed the street during their fall scavenger hunt, Bertella said that after seeing how different schools fared during the recession, he’s glad he chose Alabama over LSU in 2008.

Bertella considers LSU a good school, but the near constant expansion at Alabama— including new classroom buildings, new housing and new buses — confirmed to him that he made the right decision.

“I never really considered it as prestigious,” the 22-year-old marketing student said, “but now I see my degree differently. My opinion has definitely changed.”

In the past five years, Alabama has added more than 400 new faculty members to its campus, while LSU saw 220 leave. And when professors leave a school, they usually take their grant money with them.

Alabama has grown its enrollment over the past decade from about 20,000 students in 2003 to just under 35,000 today. LSU, on the other hand, lost 1,369 students over the same time, putting its current enrollment at just under 30,000.

Alabama administrators say they’ve not just added students; they’ve also improved the caliber of those students. Of the 6,400 freshman enrolled last fall, 26 percent earned a 4.0 grade-point-average as high school seniors.

Based on those numbers, it would appear that while Alabama is on the rise, LSU is stagnant at best.

Not just numbers

The differences between the two campuses seems to go beyond the mere numbers.

Some LSU professors, most prominently Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope, have been hammering home the idea that one of the most significant issues at Louisiana’s flagship university is low employee morale. They say year-after-year state budget cuts, ballooning student-faculty ratios and significant turnover at key positions have all contributed to the faculty’s lack of enthusiasm.

Cope acknowledges that a recent round of pay increases improved the mood at LSU slightly. He said what was once a demoralized faculty is now a group suffering somewhat less.

“It’s a malaise,” Cope said.

Compare that to Tuscaloosa, where late last month several Alabama faculty members said spirits have never been higher, noting the university has become a popular destination for educators nationwide looking to land at a flourishing university. Professors said there has been solid buy-in from instructors when it comes to the school administration’s policies.

Alabama theater professor William Teague explains that years ago, Alabama’s administration did a good job articulating a mission.

“There’s been a real confidence in this university,” Teague said. “Nearly everybody is on board.”

At the same time, it’s not all doom and gloom at LSU. The university is doing well in a number of areas that could pay dividends down the road.

Newly hired President F. King Alexander likes to say that higher education in America is entering “the Outcomes Era.” It’s a nod to a general trend where policymakers, including President Barack Obama, are pushing the idea that college funding should be more closely tied to value.

Obama wants to rank colleges by how well they serve students, then in the next five years funnel a larger share of federal dollars to the higher-scoring schools. Schools would be judged on how high they set tuition, how much students owe when they leave, graduation rates and the salaries students make after graduating.

Based on those criteria — mainly low tuition and competitive salaries among graduates — LSU administrators believe their school matches up favorably with its peers in the South and with some of the more prestigious universities in the nation.

Recruiting pays dividends

One of the biggest differences between Alabama and LSU over the past several years is how each approaches recruiting — and not for football. The art of identifying the most desirable students, then enticing them to enroll is one of the most competitive areas in higher education. It is also one of the main reasons why the people on Alabama’s campus don’t complain about the drastic budget cuts they’ve absorbed over the past five years. Alabama faculty and administrators say the extra cash brought in through enrollment gains negated their state’s budget cuts.

LSU has about a dozen recruiters working to attract out-of-state students. Alabama has 37. A report released by the LSU Transition Advisory Team earlier this year determined that LSU hasn’t made enough of a commitment in the recruiting arena to compete with peer schools. The team was assembled to recommend ways to turn LSU into a nationally competitive enterprise.

The team reported students are frustrated, disappointed and even angry over LSU’s “seeming lack of interest in their needs.” The report says the students want to be treated as customers and are less tolerant of large class sizes, crumbling buildings and inattentive professors.

The team noted the situation has worsened to the point that many students leave the university without having developed a sense of loyalty to their alma mater.

Conversely, recruiting at Alabama has become the centerpiece of a strategy allowing a once middling university to leapfrog LSU on its way to a higher national profile in many regards.

Alabama calculated it could grow exponentially with an influx of out-of-state students. Last year, students from outside Alabama paid $22,900 in tuition and fees — more than double the $9,400 for in-state students.

In 2002, out-of-state students made up only 24 percent of Alabama’s student body. Today, they account for 60 percent. It’s widely held that one of the biggest advantages of attracting students from out-of-state is the potential to get talented people to stay and work in the area after graduation.

A different school of thought says universities should focus more on training in-state students, therefore keeping their best and brightest close to home.

Ten years ago, Alabama’s administration calculated that recruiting out-of-state students was a more beneficial strategy.

Alabama Interim Provost Joe Benson said the extra funds brought in by increasing out-of-state enrollment allowed the school to overcome a 33 percent reduction in state funds over the past five years.

“We’ve done extremely well. We really weathered that storm,” Benson said.

As far as recruiting faculty, many professors on both campuses agreed that Baton Rouge is a more desirable location than Tuscaloosa because of the amenities that come with living in a more metropolitan area. But Alabama, they note, has a more attractive retirement program. Alabama teachers get a guaranteed pension for life. LSU faculty have to invest in a 401(k)-type retirement plan that is considered much more risky.

Benson singles out the overall growth of his campus as the biggest factor appealing to prospective faculty members.

“When the economy went bad, we did extremely well. We were doing between 60 and 100 faculty searches per year. We were an attractive destination because we were growing. Faculty saw our resources and our infrastructure and they wanted to come here.”

The method

As chancellor of the University of Alabama System, Robert Witt oversees three campuses, in Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Birmingham. Before that, he spent nearly a decade as president of the Tuscaloosa campus.

Witt said Alabama went through a self-analysis in 2003, looking at its enrollment, recruiting and the number of students registered in certain majors, then decided the school needed a marketing plan.

High school graduation rates in Alabama had been flat for years, meaning that the university would have to look outside the state to grow.

“We knew we could accept all qualified Alabama residents, but if we wanted to grow and grow with quality, we needed out-of-state students,” Witt said.

Right now, Alabama’s more than three dozen recruiters are scattered across the country from California to Texas to New York. They are full-time employees working out of their homes and armed with the most basic of tools — iPads, laptops and cell phones.

Witt said his recruiters started in Texas, where state law said high school students who finished in the top 10 percent of their class were guaranteed admission to the public university of their choice — students usually selected the University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M. The law has since been scaled back to offer the guarantee to the top 8 percent of high school seniors.

“What we saw is that a lot of great high school students in Texas don’t get into their first two choices,” Witt said. “We felt that if we recruited aggressively and showed them we had an academically strong university with a beautiful campus and strong inter-collegiate athletics,” Alabama would have a shot.

Witt said his university also put together a program on campus that would live up to student expectations.

“We strengthened our counseling, and we built lots of buildings,” he said.

Witt estimates that between 2003 and this year, Alabama has opened a new building every 90 days. The university also hired someone who studied the Disney World model of lighting and beautification to manage the school grounds.

“The single most important thing I did was that I devoted time to recruiting receptions and visiting high schools,” Witt said. “I was usually the only university president at these events. All we felt we had to do was go into a great high school, and get two or three of their strongest seniors and give them a good experience,. And when they went home for Christmas, they became recruiters. They started doing the work for us.”

Charles Karr, dean of Alabama’s College of Engineering, is generally considered a recruiting maven.

His department has grown from 1,600 undergraduates to more than 4,000 over eight years.

“The truth of the matter is that they had it right in Sunday school,” he said. “Nobody is going to care what you think until they think you care. You have to have a genuine interest in young people when you’re recruiting. We have to recruit 1,300 kids for our freshman class, but you have to get them one kid at a time. I can tell them lots about Alabama. But if you don’t care, it’s not going to work.”

Where LSU stands

To really understand Alabama’s progress compared to LSU, it’s important to note that Alabama has a lot of freedoms that LSU doesn’t. For instance, Alabama’s Board of Trustees is allowed to set tuition, while LSU’s board is not. Alabama has the ability to save money through its own bulk-purchasing process; Louisiana lawmakers have not allowed LSU the same autonomy. LSU is barred from charging out-of-state students tuition that exceeds the Southern regional average. Alabama has no such restriction.

Yet LSU President F. King Alexander says he still believes LSU matches up favorably with Alabama and several other schools that have a higher national profile.

In higher education circles, for example, research expenditures are considered one of the best measures of a university’s growth over time.

Money spent on research generally shows whether a university is growing academically. Academic growth on a university’s part translates to student achievement.

LSU’s Baton Rouge campus had about $150 million in research expenditures last year. Alabama spent roughly $55 million.

Furthermore, a recent survey says the mid-career earnings of LSU graduates rank 34th out of 167 public research universities. That means LSU graduates who have settled on a career generally make more than graduates of Ohio State University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Wisconsin — all schools considered more prestigious than LSU.

“We’re relatively underrated,” Alexander said. “Our grads are getting good jobs. We’re the only one in the state that increased enrollment. We have a lot more to brag about, we just need to do a better job of it. We need to play more offense. We’ve been reacting and recoiling, when we need to be more out there.”

Alexander concedes that even though enrollment has recently risen after several years of decline, LSU needs a stronger recruiting push. He said plans are in place to increase the number of recruiters from 12 to 20. LSU plans to hire one new recruiter immediately, then add a few more this spring, depending on their budget, until they eventually get to 20 in the next several years.

Alexander acknowledges Alabama’s success in winning over students in Texas, Georgia and Florida who don’t get into their first choice of schools in their states.

But Alexander said one arena in which LSU can separate itself from other Southeastern Conference schools is value — the balance of offering a rigorous academic curriculum without saddling students with excessive debt.

“If these things matter to students and their parents, I’m very pleased with where we look compared to any other SEC schools,” Alexander said.

Alexander added that it’s tough to make an apples-to-apples comparison between Alabama and LSU.

Alabama is known as that state’s liberal arts college, he said, while its in-state rival Auburn University is regarded as the school specializing in science and technology. LSU is regarded as the go-to public university in Louisiana for all of those areas of study plus veterinary medicine, agricultural science and engineering, Alexander said.

If Alabama has been focused on overall growth, Alexander said LSU is focused on growth in targeted areas, including business, engineering, health studies and foreign language.

He said LSU will never strive to enroll more than half of its students from out of state, nor will it look to grow to 50,000 or 60,000 students.

LSU is focused on recruiting faculty in high-demand fields, getting student-teacher ratios closer to 20-to-1 rather than the current 23-to-1; and attracting more international and ethnically diverse students to the campus.

“If you want a great degree of breadth in your fields of choice to study, LSU offers a great opportunity to go to a university that offers what Auburn and Alabama offer combined,” Alexander said. “They are both great universities, I am not disparaging either. What I’m saying is that their degree is not worth more than an LSU degree.”