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“The Watchers” is a film adaptation of the 2022 book of the same name by A.M. Shine.
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Published June 13, 2024

As standards skyrocket, so do barriers

The U’s efforts to become a top school have left some students out.
Normandale students Mohamed Hassan and Quadsia Anjum work on a chemistry lab on Monday, April 22, 2013, at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. Hassan is one of many students that are interested in transferring to the University of Minnesota, although retention in the admissions process could make that transfer more difficult.
Image by Jaak Jensen
Normandale students Mohamed Hassan and Quadsia Anjum work on a chemistry lab on Monday, April 22, 2013, at Normandale Community College in Bloomington. Hassan is one of many students that are interested in transferring to the University of Minnesota, although retention in the admissions process could make that transfer more difficult.

Two decades ago, only 15 percent of University of Minnesota students graduated in four years. It was a problem the Board of Regents asked administrators to tackle in the years that followed.

In the early 2000s, regents set a goal that 60 percent of undergraduates would graduate in four years, and administrators started chipping away at it.

So the school restructured its admissions office, revamped first-year programming and instituted the 13-credit tuition charge to meet that goal. Later, administrators set a goal to become one of the top three public research universities in the world by 2015 — a dream that brought with it the closure of the General College and the opening of the University Honors Program.

Today, the four-year graduation rate has quadrupled to nearly 60 percent. In fall 2012, the average admitted freshman scored 28 on the ACT and ranked in the top 15 percent of his or her high school class.

“There’s a whole group of excellent students who never would’ve looked at this University as a possibility in the 1990s who now make the University of Minnesota their first choice,” said Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

But as more highly qualified students and those of higher-income backgrounds march in, those who may have attended the University in the past now see it as an elite institution — one that, with its increasing admissions standards and high price tag, might not be the place for them.


Changing direction

The University decided in 2005 that one of its efforts to serve underrepresented students no longer aligned with its overall goals.

A task force reported that the General College should close as part of a larger plan to improve the University’s standing among its peers.

The College, a precursor to modern community colleges, had its roots in the post-WWI era, when 60 percent of University students did not return after their first year. Many of these students — oftentimes veterans — were not prepared for college-level academics.

Arguably the biggest advocate for opening the General College was Lotus D. Coffman, the University’s president from 1920-38.

“[Coffman] believed, first of all, that a state university owed an opportunity to everyone. If a student failed, it wasn’t necessarily the fault of the student but more likely the failure of the university,” Allen B. Johnson, a former General College faculty member, wrote in a 2003 essay.

The College’s closure pointed to new values at the University, based largely on improving graduation rates.

While Coffman blamed a student’s failure on a university, administrators today are looking for students who can’t fail.

“The goal is to provide access to success for University of Minnesota students,” the task force’s 2005 report said. “Access that does not produce a degree in four-to-six years does not meet that goal.”

McMaster is hesitant to discuss the General College closing but said administrators at the time felt there were better ways to provide what the General College was offering.

While there are programs at the University, as well as the Post-Secondary Teaching and Learning department, that serve underrepresented students, they don’t serve as many students as the General College did.

TRiO, which was originally part of the General College, is a set of federally funded programs. One of them, TRiO Student Support Services, admits 150 freshmen at the University annually. To be admitted, students must come from a low-income background, be a first-generation college student, have a disability or show academic need.

“TRiO is … quite unique in that we’re still serving the population that General College was intended to serve,” said Amy Kampsen, the program’s director.

But while the General College admitted more than 800 students each year, TRiO is only able to serve about 300 students at once.

The President’s Emerging Scholars program is another that has stepped in to serve about 500 underrepresented students across the University.

But TRiO is the only existing program that serves the exact same population as the College did, Kampsen said.

TRiO students are typically in the program for two years, or until they declare a major. When they move into the larger University, Kampsen said, they can feel out of place among more typical University students.

“They might be the only person of color in the room — or ‘The only one like them,’ is what we get a lot in our surveys.”

Carlos Reyes, a senior who started in TRiO, said he’s noticed the level of “cultural understanding” is different outside of the program.

A business and marketing education major, Reyes is the son of Mexican immigrants and the first person in his family to attend college.

“I had potential, and I had drive,” he said. “And I’m happy to say that I made it.”

Because TRiO students take many of their classes together during the first two years, they develop a strong sense of community. And many come from similar backgrounds — whether they came from low-income households, are first-generation college students or went to inner-city high schools.

“We’re happy to see each other succeed,” he said, “which can be different from a lot of places on campus.”


Defining success differently

Kampsen was a low-income, first-generation college student herself.

In high school, she participated in track and field and ended up being recruited by college coaches who, she said, talked to her about sports, not school.

“My first year was horrible,” she said. Her GPA was 1.9, and she ended up transferring and thinking about dropping out. Her second year was better, but she struggled to balance two jobs with athletics and academics.

Finally, the athletics director upped Kampsen’s scholarship so she could work less. She found a major she loved and later went on to graduate school.

Her undergraduate degree took five years, she said, “because I was first-generation — didn’t know what I was doing or how to do it.”

Learning skills like how to study and work independently took time, she said.

McMaster acknowledged that not all students can meet the four-year graduation goal — they might change their major, for example, or take time off because of financial difficulties.

“At any major university, you can’t have a 100 percent rate,” he said, but pointed to other Big Ten schools with rates higher than the University’s.

“I’m a competitive guy,” he said, “and so I see that Penn State’s at 65 percent … I think our four-year graduation rate ought to be better than that.”


‘College material’

To become a top institution, the University has made a habit of targeting top students.

“Our goal is to admit students who we know are going to graduate in a timely way,” McMaster said.

As standards have increased and University academics have become more rigorous, “the academic profile of our students has changed,” said David Arendale, an associate professor in PsTL.

Many of the department’s faculty members, including Arendale, worked in the General College.

Kampsen, who also worked there, said the University is targeting “students that are already college material.”

As initiatives to improve undergraduate education take effect, McMaster said, word spreads to students who may not have considered the University in the past. At the same time, the admissions office has “refined” its strategies.

Admissions decisions consider both “primary” and “secondary” factors. Secondary factors are qualitative — community service, for example. Primary factors are more hard-and-fast and include test scores, high school GPA and class rank.

At a January meeting of the Faculty Senate Committee on Educational Policy, McMaster said that there’s a correlation between “student success and graduation” and their high school rank and ACT score.

According to the meeting minutes, McMaster told committee members that the University has increased the graduation rate because it has increased the average ACT scores and high school rank of incoming freshmen.

Nationwide, many institutions are choosing not to accept students who are less prepared or who cannot meet tuition costs.

In a 2011 survey of college admissions counselors, those at public doctoral institutions identified students who can pay full tuition as the top group for which their institution increased recruitment efforts in the past year.

These institutions are also pursuing out-of-state and international students, who typically pay higher tuition and fees. At the University, out-of-state students without reciprocity and international students pay about $5,000 more than in-state students. International students are charged a $290 fee.

Kampsen said the emphasis on ACT score, in particular, is a major barrier for students. TRiO students’ average high school GPA is 3.5, but their average ACT score is 19, she said.

Alysha Lister, an elementary education junior and co-chair of the TRiO Student Board, was waitlisted when she applied to the University. She was eventually accepted through TRiO but said she thinks she was waitlisted because of her 19 ACT score.

Though she said test scores are important “to an extent,” it’s difficult to judge a student’s ability based on those alone. They may, like her, have done well in high school but have test anxiety.

What’s more, low-income students tend to score lower on the ACT than their wealthier counterparts.

A Washington State University study using 2004 College Board and ACT Assessment test score data found an almost perfect correlation between poverty and low ACT and SAT scores.

The correlation for SAT scores was so strong, a co-author of the study thought at first he’d made a mistake.

But Don Orlich, professor emeritus at Washington State University and co-author of the study, said when he asked a statistician friend to do the same calculation, the result was identical.

“No matter how you look at it,” Orlich said, “income plays a role in achievement.”


The income divide

Omer Khan, a junior who transferred from Normandale Community College, works at least 30 hours per week and takes out loans to pay for school. Because he’s also taking 15 credits, he’s had to make sacrifices.

“You don’t hang out with friends anymore,” he said.

In-state tuition has quadrupled since 1992. Despite significant additions to financial aid, tuition costs are still intimidating for many students.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said while the Legislature “applauds” the University’s goal to become a top school — and sees the increase in admissions standards as consistent with that — lawmakers are also committed to increasing access for low-income students.

“We want [the University] to be competitive,” she said. “But what we would also say is that we think it is of paramount importance that the low-income best and brightest be able to attend the University.”

Many TRiO students work to pay their own tuition because their families are often unable to help, Kampsen said. In some cases, family members may not have credit scores and so cannot take out parental loans.

Though students may receive a lot of financial aid when they’re first admitted to the University, she said, the original package doesn’t always keep up with tuition increases.

For first-generation college students, figuring out how to even apply for financial aid is a struggle, said Arendale, the PsTL professor.

Although administrators encourage students to see college as a long-term investment, some may still be hesitant to take on debt, he said.

Sam Goldberg, a first-year student at Normandale, decided to start at a community college to save money and decide on a major. He has family help with tuition now but plans to pay his own way with work, scholarships and loans when he transfers to the University in about a year.

In 2012, nearly 31 percent of University students said they were “very concerned” about their accumulated educational debt, according to the Student Experience in the Research University survey.

The same year, nearly 12 percent of students took a community college course to save money.

Meanwhile, students with more money are more common on campus.

Since 2001, the number of students at the University whose families earn at least $110,000 per year has doubled. At the same time, the number of students from families at lower income levels has decreased, with the biggest drop in the middle-income range.

Despite its interest in increasing diversity, the University is shutting out low-income students in its pursuit of students who were academically successful in high school and can almost certainly graduate in four years.

“It isn’t that the University has to deny admission,” Arendale said. “It’s just that those other students — particularly, I think, first-generation and low-income — may not even think of the University as an option.”


Going elsewhere

In recent years, students have flocked to community colleges, where admission is less competitive and tuition costs are lower.

At Normandale, the biggest “feeder school” to the University of any college in the nation, enrollment has increased 46 percent since 2000.

More than 70 percent of students indicate on their application that they want to attend Normandale to complete general education requirements, and a quarter of students who transfer out enroll at the University.

“Students are coming in here as if it’s a general college,” said Matt Crawford, Normandale’s dean of enrollment and marketing.

The University’s Minnesota Cooperative Admissions Program guarantees admission for students who transfer from certain two-year colleges and meet specific criteria.

In a way, Minnesota’s community colleges are serving the goal Coffman assigned to the General College decades ago.

The MnSCU system, which includes community colleges, makes higher education in Minnesota more accessible, Bonoff said, because students can start there and then transfer to the University.

Mohammed Hassan chose Normandale to help him transition to the University. He was born in Somalia and emigrated to the U.S. from Yemen at age 7. Because English is his second language, he said, he decided to focus on academics in high school instead of extracurricular activities.

Normandale helps immigrant students like him make the transition to larger universities, he said. Once he’s completed his associate’s degree in kinesiology, he plans to transfer to the University.

Though Normandale offers a few technical programs, its primary focus is on fulfilling general education requirements, Crawford said.


The college dream

The University, founded in 1851, was made a land-grant institution by the 1862 Morrill Act.

Signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, the act intended to make higher education available to more than just the most privileged Americans.

“The fundamental idea was to offer an opportunity in every state for a liberal and larger education to large numbers …” U.S. Sen. Justin Morrill said in 1888.

Hassan said he hopes to enroll in the University’s physical therapy program after completing his bachelor’s degree. His dream is to become a doctor — the first in his family.

“My parents keep telling us, ‘We came to this country to give you guys a better life, a better education,’” ******he said. “… We work our hardest so that we can go to university and get a degree and have a job that we love and that we can support our family with.”

Reyes, who will graduate in May, said he has inspired his younger siblings and family friends to pursue higher education. He does outreach work at area high schools and plans to advocate for the University as an alumnus.

“Students like me … are some of the best advocates for the University, bar none,” he said. “Not only because I got a chance to graduate from here but because they gave me a shot.”

And though he appreciates that the University is trying to become a top institution, he still wants to see an emphasis on the kind of access that gave him a chance four years ago.

“Access to education is just about giving somebody a shot and making it a possibility of even going there before shutting the door,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, this isn’t Stanford. This isn’t Harvard.”

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