As I begin my sixth year at Winona State University, I find myself reflecting on what has been done, and what remains to be done. I often feel like a conductor holding a baton in front of the most talented orchestra in the world: I have the honor to encourage some level of focus and pace, but the beautiful music is really the work of others. Our students, our faculty, our staff, our community partners, and our alumni and alumnae network—50,000-strong around the globe—all work together to achieve the markers of success that define who we are.
These markers are as real as the notes on sheet music. Orchestrations and musical notations can be seen, of course, and the most obvious markers of success are plainly visible. Thanks to the Legislature, taxpayers, and donors, we already see the progress on the Education Village, which will prepare the best teachers in the world. Also thanks to donors, the Laird-Norton Center for Art and Design is set to advance the arts in Winona even further. Finally, the new tunnels under the railroad tracks are nearing completion, and will enhance our community’s safety.
But in the end, it’s the invisible sound of the orchestra and not the visible notes on the page that creates the most beauty. The success our students have is the best example. Last year, the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities initiated a new approach to allocating resources to campuses within the system. The more a college’s or university’s students exceeded expectations for success, the larger the share of the pie that institution would receive. It came as no surprise to me that students at Winona State had the highest success rate of all 37 colleges and universities—both expected (89.7 percent) and actual (91.6 percent). WSU also had the highest success rate for our students of color—86.9 percent and growing. The melody is clear: our students are achieving great things.
The measures of success continue even after our students graduate. More than 92 percent of WSU graduates are employed or furthering their studies in areas related to their major within one year of graduation, which is high by national standards. And while we continue to focus on solutions for the nationwide issue of student debt—raising private funds to support need-based scholarships, promoting financial literacy for our students, and supporting degree completion pathways—we are encouraged that WSU boasts a federal unsecured loan default rate under 4 percent, which (according to the Wall Street Journal) is even lower than the default rates of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and many other elite schools. Finally, in 2016, The Economist magazine created its own college ranking system based on whether the actual earnings of graduates exceed or fall short of projected earnings. Based on this analysis, WSU is the highest-ranked public institution in Minnesota, and in the top quartile nationally. In other words, WSU graduates out-perform standardized projections of financial success more than any other public institution in Minnesota.
So, there are the things we see with orchestras: the movements of violin bows, timpani mallets, trombone slides, and swaying woodwinds; sheets of music being turned on music stands; and, I suppose, that person standing on a platform waving the baton. But in the end, these are not what matters most. The success of an orchestra is invisible—it’s a chorus of individual notes resonating through the air to form a singular melody so powerful it can bring an audience to tears and applause. I am proud to be a member of this ensemble, and most proud of the beautiful music WSU creates in its students.
Scott R. Olson
President of Winona State University