High ACTs trump residency as admissions at UMN tighten

Students often transfer later when their scores aren’t considered.

Kevin Beckman

More students than ever want to study at the University of Minnesota, but the school’s admission standards have become stricter, pushing thousands to out-of-state schools and two-year colleges.

The stringent admissions process allows the University to advertise that its students score higher on standardized tests, a marketing tactic colleges nationwide use to distinguish themselves.

Meanwhile, the University is admitting a rising number of transfer students who don’t report high school grade point averages or ACT scores.

As a result, the University’s advertised scores don’t accurately reflect the entire student body.

And the University has limited the number of Minnesota high school students admitted, taking higher achieving students from outside the state instead, some members of the Board of Regents say. 

“[Past boards] wanted to improve the reputation of the University by becoming more selective, meaning they wanted students from all over the place to come here,” said Regent Michael Hsu. 

ButUniversity administrators have faced pressure from state legislators to admit more in-state students.

The number of Minnesota students is still about one percentage point above the board’s goal of 65 percent of undergraduates, though that has decreased every year except for one over the last decade. Some regents say the number should be as high as 75 percent.

But when regents voted last year to approve an enrollment strategy through 2021, the board decided to continue recruiting students scoring a 28 on their ACT — and didn’t include transfer student scores in that resolution. 

Because of stringent admissions standards, guidance counselor Bill Stock at Lincoln High School in Lake City, Minnesota urges University hopefuls to have a backup plan.

“You’re still encouraged to apply if you want to go there, because if you don’t apply, you never know,” he said. “But being that they [have] such a high rate of non-acceptance, we always encourage them to have other options.”

The ACT’s role

The average ACT scores and high school grade point averages reported by admitted freshmen have increased in every University college since 2000. This year’s first-year College of Science and Engineering class scored between a 30 and 34 on their ACT, nearly 10 points above the state average.

Admissions counselors have been more selective to compensate for better-scoring applicants, said Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

When an application is submitted to the University, it undergoes a rigorous review process. Each application is read at least twice by admissions staff, who look at ACT score, high school GPA, extracurricular activities, demographics and personal circumstances, such as which classes were offered at their high school.

The University enrolled 1 in 4 freshman applicants in 2005. Ten years later, the number fell to 1 in 8.

The University is using higher average test scores to help attract higher-ranking high school students, McMaster said. 

The University also plans to continue to emphasize higher ACT scores when enrolling students. 

But the advertised scores don’t account for transfer students — 33 percent of the student body — if they’re coming to the University with 26 credits or two full-time semesters under the University’s rules.

And the University doesn’t track transfer student ACT scores, so getting an actual average of the entire student body is impossible, Hsu said.

“That number is really meaningless,” he said. “It’s a totally gamed number because we don’t put an asterisk by it that says this is only for two-thirds of our student body.”

For Prior Lake High School students, it’s tough for those in the top half of the class — those with at least a 3.2 GPA — to get into the University, said guidance counselor Joseph Larsen. 

“From the feedback we hear from students about where they get accepted or waitlisted or denied, for our students to get into the U, it almost seems like it needs to be higher than that,” Larsen said. 

Hsu said he’d like to see the University consider making the test optional in the admissions process, allowing freshman applicants to submit an application without an ACT score. 

ACT scores, graduation and retention rates are lower among Minnesota students than nonresidents.

And although GPAs, test scores and home state are important while crafting an enrollment strategy, Hsu said other factors like in-state and nonresident tuition and on-campus housing availability also play big roles in discussions around balancing enrollment

‘We can’t accept everybody’

Recent enrollment numbers show the school is admitting fewer freshmen applicants. 

In fall 2007, 71 percent of undergraduates hailed from Minnesota. In fall  2016, that number fell to about 66 percent, according to the University’s Office of Institutional Research. 

Meanwhile, applications more than doubled in the last 10 years.

Transfer students are taking up spots instead.

Transfer students make up roughly one-third of the undergraduate University population — among the highest in the Big 10.

In 2015, nearly 3,000 students transferred to the University — a number that has increased for a decade. 

“With this whole array of community colleges and even [Minnesota State] … students have the option to spend a couple years getting their liberal education requirements out of the way, trying to determine what they want to major in. Then if they’re successful there … they can come back into the University as a junior,” McMaster said.

About 35 percent of transfer students are students who were rejected when they applied as freshmen, 

“It’s a second opportunity for them,” he said. “Our goal is to admit, not to reject students.”

Emily Zarnoti, 18, is waiting on her second chance. The Minneapolis resident applied to the University’s College of Liberal Arts for the fall 2016 semester but enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire after landing on the waitlist.

Zarnoti said she graduated high school with a 3.56 GPA and a 23 on her ACT.

Now, she’s trying to transfer by fall 2017.

“I’m happier when I visit the U of M than at Eau Claire,” she said. “I just feel like I’d be better off at the U.”

Fulfilling the land-grant mission

Though many administrators and regents say they take pride in the University’s selectiveness and say it should be maintained, some say they worry that higher admission standards might push residents to competing schools.

North Dakota State University, one of the University’s strongest competitors, enrolls an average of 6,474 Minnesota freshmen each year. About 6,500 Minnesota residents enrolled at the school — North Dakota’s only research institution — in 2016.  

Admission standards are looser at NDSU, which seeks applicants with a high school GPA of 2.75 and ACT score of 22. 

Despite passing an enrollment strategy last year, the University’s enrollment balance debate has continued. 

According to the University’s charter, the school’s mission is to “provide the inhabitants of [Minnesota] with the means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the various branches of Literature, Science and the Arts.”

Nonresidents surpassed Minnesota applicants in 2012, and the gap is still widening, leading some to question whether the school is serving the University’s best interests as a land-grant institution.

Rachelle Hernandez, associate vice provost for admissions, said priority is given to in-state students.

“It’s about making sure that our Minnesota students know that we want them here, that we want them to stay in our state,” she said.

Still, Regent Richard Beeson said he worries the University is falling short of its land-grant mission.

“I really do worry about losing kids out of the system,” he said.

Legislators have said tax-paying Minnesotans should have an easier time getting their children into the University, Hsu said.

Studies nationwide show students graduating from college tend to stay in the state where they studied.

That’s why Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, advocates for prioritizing resident admission.

“They live here, their parents pay taxes here, and they’re liable to stay here,” Nornes said. “I think it’s a win-win when that occurs. It just makes sense, and most people would agree with that.”

Christopher Aadland contributed to this report.