The New York Times spotlights WUSTL’s rapid ascent to national elite

This article was published on the front page of The New York Times (news section) on Monday, December 22, 2003. Reprinted with permission of The New York Times.

By Greg Winter

Less than 30 years ago, Washington University was so obscure that the trustees decided to stick “in St. Louis” at the end of its name, exasperated by the perennial question “So, where are you guys anyway? Seattle or D.C.?”

Today, Washington University in St. Louis has 15 times as many applicants as it can accept. Beyond that, the former “streetcar college,” as it once called itself, pierced the Top 10 circle of U.S. News & World Report rankings this year, humbling several Ivy League institutions along the way, including Brown, Cornell and Columbia.

Such an ascent is what almost every university strives for, but none have come close to matching Washington’s success.

Exactly how this happened, however, is a mystery to most here. Maybe it is the stately campus, the very model of American collegiate Gothic. Some cite the teaching; the research; no, the medical school. It could just be that warm Midwestern charm. Yet underneath the ascent and the debated theories behind it is a remarkably consistent theme, a sort of elephant in the Quad.

“We’ve raised a lot of money,” said Mark S. Wrighton, 54, the university’s chancellor.

To put it mildly. In a clear showing of how integral money can be to the educational equation, Wash U.’s rise in the rankings has come alongside a wildly successful capital campaign, the second of two in which the university has raised roughly twice as much as it originally sought.

Not only has the money raised the university’s standing — one of the main factors in the U.S. News rankings is financial resources — but it has also provided Wash U. the wherewithal to advance its footing in another category the magazine weighs: caliber of the student body.

With one of the most liberal uses of financial incentives for academic achievers among the top 20 universities, Wash U. is open about its reliance on what is typically called merit aid to compete with the elite schools in the recruitment wars.

“It’s something that helps people pay attention to us, and not just think of us as something in flyover land between Pittsburgh and Denver,” said Benjamin S. Sandler, who oversees Wash U.’s financial aid.

But could the university fare as well without merit aid, a strategy that neither the Ivy League, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nor several other elite universities employ?

“Is it possible? Yes,” Mr. Sandler said. “Could we achieve the same success and maintain it? I’m not sure. It would be a lot harder.”

Indeed, the two U.S. News categories in which Washington University has made its most significant gains, financial resources and student selectivity, seem inextricably linked to its fund-raising prowess and $3.5 billion endowment, the 11th largest in the nation. As if to underscore the point, Wash U. is the highest-rated university by Charity Navigator, which measures nonprofit organizations for the strength of fund-raising, the growth of revenues, efficiency and, in a phrase, programmatic bang for the buck.

Washington University is hardly the only highly ranked university to give merit aid to top students who may not need help to pay for school — Vanderbilt, Rice and Emory all devote a greater share of their financial aid budgets to the same end — but the issue has become a volatile one among elite institutions.

Many of them scorn merit aid as a not-so-subtle means of buying a better class, sometimes at the expense of lower-income students who need financial assistance.

“It’s very frightening,” said Heather McDonnell, director of financial aid at Sarah Lawrence College, referring to those few top institutions, like Wash U., that spend at least 15 percent of their financial aid budgets on merit aid. “If we were at a meeting together, I’d be growling at them.”

Still, Wash U. officials say they see no shame in providing merit aid, nor have they ever. Even in its “streetcar” days, when virtually all its students were local, the school helped build its academic reputation by offering full scholarships to every valedictorian in St. Louis.

“If Wash U. hadn’t stepped up and given it to me, I wouldn’t be here,” said David Long, a freshman from Orlando, Fla., who flew out to see the campus twice, courtesy of the university, before deciding that the reputation is true: “People are nice here, and I really like Wash U.’s financial aid department.”

In the 1980’s, it sought to raise $300 million and ended up with $630 million. This time around, it started with an internal target of $750 million, but its dogged approach met with such unusual early success that it pushed up the goal to $1 billion. With six more months of pleading to go and contributions from alumni and local corporations like Enterprise Rent-a-Car and Anheuser-Busch, the university has already exceeded that amount by $400 million and is now chasing $1.5 billion, a figure that only a dozen or so universities have been able to meet, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

That figure has “been our secret ambition all along,” said David T. Blasingame, vice chancellor for alumni and development.

It is all part of what Mr. Wrighton, the chancellor, called the push to become “America’s best university” — not to trounce Harvard, necessarily, but because “there’s no reason why America can’t have more than one No. 1 institution.”

Mr. Wrighton, a former provost at M.I.T., said he had known relatively little about the university before being asked to interview for the top post, but appeared confident that such anonymity would not persist.

“None of our schools should be allowed to continue unless it’s going to be a premier player in its field,” he said.

Mr. Wrighton is the kind of leader who sends e-mail dispatches to members of his staff long after they’ve gone to bed and well before they rise.

“Behind Mark’s calm exterior is this extraordinary intensity,” Mr. Blasingame said, adding that this determination had helped “accelerate Wash U.’s ascent.”

But to what end? To leap forward in the rankings? In fact, the university’s administrators seem to have a love-hate relationship with U.S. News. They are naturally gratified to see their efforts reflected in an unparalleled march from the 20th slot in 1995, when Mr. Wrighton took the helm, to a ninth-place tie with Dartmouth this year.

Yet they also profess a deep wariness of the rankings, partly because good fortune tends to be fickle and because they do not believe such ratings accurately gauge excellence. Mr. Wrighton leads a committee of college presidents that hopes to devise an alternative measure of academic success.

Even so, few here would deny the power of the U.S. News rankings, fully aware that “popularity breeds popularity,” as Mr. Sandler put it, in terms of both fund-raising and attracting top students.

Yun Kyung, for example, a 23-year-old graduate student from South Korea, said she considered Wash U. only after seeing the high ranking of its social work school. And for all the many other reasons people apply to Wash U., said Nanette Tarbouni, director of admissions, “one cannot ignore the U.S. News factor.”

Still, in its zeal for academic renown, some students said, Washington has gone a little too far. Rules concerning alcohol and parties are tighter, they contended, the campus police more intimidating. Old haunts have been replaced with more sterile spaces, they said.

“They have Ivy envy,” said Kevin Croker, a 21-year-old senior, who had harsh words for the administration even as he avidly defended his professors. “This school is overly concerned about its image.”

But the complaints are far from universal.

“I had never heard of the school when I was applying,” said Sarah Galanti, a 21-year-old junior from Atlanta, “but I’m so happy here.”