The University’s mission, “to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community,” remains the road map for all aspects of Baylor from student life to research, teaching and more. That is why it was no surprise that, once again, the University was listed among the best of the best in the most recent U.S. News & World Report college rankings, as well as in The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education report.
Baylor ranks 79th in the nation for U.S. News & World Report’s annual review of colleges and universities. U.S. News also ranked the University eighth nationally for student first-year experience, while The Wall Street Journal ranked Baylor fourth nationally for student engagement. In addition to other high marks, the University ranked 20th nationally for best undergraduate teaching, 22nd for writing in the disciplines, and 27th in undergraduate research/creative projects.
What do these rankings tell prospective students, current students and alumni about the University? Here’s a closer look at a few of those areas that made it to the top: student engagement and first-year experience, undergraduate research and undergraduate teaching.
“Our purpose at Baylor is to meet students where they are and to walk alongside them in their journey to help them become more the people that God designed them to be, so they can go forth and do the work that He has created them to do,” Dr. Kevin Jackson, vice president of student life, says.
While the University’s mission remains at the center of all student programs and services, Jackson explains that Baylor also focuses on being intentional when it comes to engaging students in that mission, and it begins with a strong first-year experience.
“It was beyond anything that I had expected. I was blown away by all the things that Baylor had to offer from an academic standpoint and a community standpoint.”
“It takes our entire campus to create a first-year experience that meets each student where he or she is,” Jackson says. “Because of the intentionality that we have, starting with the admissions process into orientation, into Line Camp and Welcome Week, we have the opportunity to work with our students before classes start, helping them understand more what it means to be a student at Baylor and to be part of the Baylor Family
“In the first week of school, we continue to remain engaged. We have a strong residential life program which includes a number of living-and-learning communities and residential colleges that work to create a sense of community for our students certainly in their first year and beyond. Along the way, our faculty and staff are working together to help create a learning environment and spiritually faithful environment that speaks deeply to our students.”
Baylor goes a step further when it comes to its new student experience by purposefully integrating academics into the conventional onboarding process. Students may choose from more than 50 new student experience courses offered across disciplines and taught by instructors invested in creating community, building relationships and supporting students as they begin their academic journey.
“Many of these instructors make time during the first three weeks of class to meet one-on-one with each student to get to know them on a personal level,” Dr. Sinda Vanderpool, associate vice provost for academic enrollment management, says. “This helps students know that they are not just a number — that someone at Baylor cares about the ins and outs of their personal journey.”
The planning and development of the new student experience takes coordination and collaboration across multiple areas of the University.
“Baylor is committed to providing an innovative new student experience, and I believe it is possible because of the level of conscious design and coordination among the teams involved,” Vanderpool says.
When Baylor sophomore Gabriel Andino visited the campus in February of his senior year in high school, the Houston native from a single-parent home was looking for an academically challenging university that he could afford.
“I visited other universities before Baylor, but the same day I visited, I put forward my deposit to enroll,” Andino says. “It was beyond anything that I had expected. I was blown away by all the things that Baylor had to offer from an academic standpoint and a community standpoint, and that day I decided that this is where I wanted to spend the next four years of my life. I was going to make it happen somehow.”
A biology major, Andino has taken full advantage of the opportunities Baylor offers all students, academically, socially and spiritually.
“I truly believe that Baylor puts all the tools in your hands that you need to be successful, and you are guided along the way by professors who really care about you,” Andino says. “Baylor provides the best environment in which to flourish. You can build a strong sense of community in this University which gives you a sense of belonging and allows you to find like-minded people who you want to flourish with and who push you to be a better person.”
Students across the campus and through the years have similar stories and memories of how Baylor made them feel at home and challenged. Whether it be a professor who took the time to get to know students and invite them home for dinner, or the long hours spent decorating a homecoming float, these stories are part of Baylor’s tradition of engaging students.
Matt Burchett, BA ’01, director of student activities, points to the night before ESPN’s GameDay aired from Baylor in November 2019 when more than 800 students camped at the McLane Stadium. Then Baylor football head coach Matt Rhule visited with the students that night. Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D., delivered pizza for the students, followed by Vice President and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Mack B. Rhoades IV with cookies. The entire event was planned by the Baylor Chamber of Commerce.
“Baylor is thoughtful and intentional about helping create lifelong memories for students,” Burchett says, adding that students plan, organize and lead most such events. “Our students are creating and facilitating their own programs. We are student-driven. We have about 350 organizations which hosted 12,000 events during the 2018-19 year with 9,200 students involved in those organizations. Those numbers are pretty impressive. We are fortunate to have that kind of engagement, but it is not surprising because our students are motivated to be engaged.”
In order to further undergraduate research at Baylor, the University developed the Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Achievement (URSA) initiative in 2007. The campus-wide program serves faculty and students across all disciplines. The goal of URSA is to support, promote and enhance undergraduate research and scholarship through grants, Scholars Week and web-based resources.
Dr. Nathan Elkins, associate professor of art history and URSA co-director, says undergraduate research opportunities enrich and broaden the student experience.
“It gives students an active role in the discipline,” Elkins says. “They get a sense of what it takes to discover new knowledge or contribute to the conversation in their field. Research experience also allows students an opportunity to gain firmer methodological grounding, hone their critical analytical skills, and can give them an advantage when entering a profession after graduation or pursuing post-graduate study.”
Andino immediately took advantage of research opportunities, applying for two undergraduate research-based courses before he stepped foot on campus.
“I applied over the summer, and before we even moved in, my professor for my SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) course had already sent me introductory material to look into,” Andino says. “It was exactly what you would expect from a laboratory biology experience in terms of what we did such as isolating different types of bacteria. Each student had the opportunity to discover a unique virus as a freshman, categorize it, name it and upload it to a database.”
Andino, who plans to attend medical school and practice pediatric surgery one day, furthered his undergraduate research by becoming a lab assistant teaching the same SEA-PHAGES course to this year’s freshmen.
“Without these courses, I wouldn’t be the student I am today,” Andino says. “They forced me to learn discipline. When you are in college, you are on your own as to how you handle your classes and your time. Being in those programs forced me to allocate my time to best be successful in the classroom and still meet the obligations I had in the lab. They also taught me to be a more efficient thinker and a better problem solver; and they reinforced my goals and opened my mind up to a whole other side of science that I never knew. They got me incredibly excited about what science has to offer and what there is out there to explore.”
“They also taught me to be a more efficient thinker and a better problem solver; and they reinforced my goals and opened my mind up to a whole other side of science that I never knew.”
That is precisely the takeaway that Dr. Tamarah Adair, BS ’85, MS ’96, PhD ’98, the director of course-based undergraduate research in biology and URSA co-director, hopes all students have through undergraduate research.
“I think historically — even before we offered this program — Baylor always had faculty members who mentored undergraduate students in their research,” Adair, a senior lecturer in biology, says. “Baylor chooses faculty members who want to engage with their students. They bring them into the labs, and Baylor has worked hard to support faculty by providing undergraduate research grants to help fund projects, travel to meetings and/or equipment.”
By providing and promoting undergraduate research students, Baylor gives students a competitive edge for national scholarships, including the Goldwater and Fulbright awards.
“We like to see students progress and go on and come back and tell us about their next level research,” Adair says. “Some of them return to give seminars to our students. The day-to-day gratification is seeing students excited about learning and being creative and curious. Those are all the things we like to see in scientists, and that is gratifying.”
While Baylor continues to work toward T1/R1 status, it remains committed to teaching undergraduates by engaging them in learning, developing their leadership potential and mentoring. Providing a transformational undergraduate education is the second pillar of Baylor’s Illuminate strategic plan.
Dr. Wesley Null, vice provost of undergraduate education and institutional effectiveness, says the University strives to develop a “lifelong relationship” with students.
“When you come to Baylor, you are coming into a community; you are entering into relationships where people will take a personal interest in you, in your future and in your aspirations,” Null says.
“We are committed to every single student who enters Baylor, and we are committed to doing everything we can to help them graduate in four years and achieve their dreams.”
While that relationship begins before a student steps foot on campus, it is solidified by the faculty and staff members who greet students as they walk into a lecture hall, seminar room or lab and make themselves available beyond office hours, often getting to know the students personally and serving as a mentor.
“Our tradition and commitment to mentorship runs deep — 175 years. It is rooted in our history,” Null says. “When we talk about mentorship at Baylor, it means something, and our faculty members are dedicated to taking undergraduate students under their wings and helping them find success.”
Furthermore, Null says Baylor’s faculty takes care of students in a holistic way — socially, intellectually, spiritually and physically.
Undergraduate teaching at Baylor is strengthened through the Office of Academic Support Programs within the Paul L. Foster Success Center. Offering resources for students and faculty, the Success Center provides supplemental instruction, tutoring, learning accommodations, academic counseling, academic instruction and more.
Baylor’s national ranking in undergraduate teaching is recognition of these programs that help students succeed. A few of the programs which have garnered attention include a military veterans program, first-generation student program, transfer student program and a minority student program.
Undergraduate teaching also is bolstered by an advising system that provides academic advisors with better data to help students find the best major that fits their passions.
“We are committed to every single student who enters Baylor, and we are committed to doing everything we can to help them graduate in four years and achieve their dreams,” Null says.
The tradition of mentorship and student support would not be possible without Baylor’s commitment to faculty development. One sign of this commitment is the University’s investment in the Academy for Teaching and Learning (ATL). Established in 2008, the ATL supports faculty development in teaching through workshops, seminars and related activities. Dr. Lenore Wright is the ATL director and associate professor of interdisciplinary studies.
“The University’s commitment to the ATL demonstrates its commitment to teaching excellence alongside high-impact research,” Wright says. “I believe our administration’s resolve ensures that our faculty and student body will continue to regard teaching as foundational to student learning, moral development and spiritual growth.”
Baylor offers several teaching awards that recognize excellence in the classroom, and the ATL oversees a faculty fellowship, the Baylor Fellows Program, designed to honor outstanding teachers and encourage innovations in pedagogical thinking and practice.
While it is a point of pride when annual college rankings seem to recognize the fruit borne of thoughtful planning, the University faculty and staff will continue to develop meaningful ways to fulfill Baylor’s mission — looking for confirmation of the results as students-transformed-into-alumni fling the University’s green and gold throughout the world.
Meanwhile on campus, students will find innumerable ways to make memories and achieve classroom success. From attending Dr Pepper Hour in Barfield Drawing Room to sharing a meal in the home of a beloved professor or diving into research opportunities, each experience enriches Baylor student life.