Undergrads are heart of U2000 plan

by Joe Carlson

and Jessica Steeno

If University administrators live up to their promises, freshmen entering the University this fall will be better prepared and suffer fewer bureaucratic headaches than those who started five years before them.
The undergraduate education initiative of U2000 represents a large amount of the specific changes administrators at the University are in the process of making.
The character of undergraduate education has seen significant revision in the last decade, largely as a result of U2000. But some goals have yet to be reached.
“We needed to take strong action to ensure the quality of undergraduate education if we were really going to define this university,” University President Nils Hasselmo said. “To define this university as a leading research and land-grant university, we needed to make sure that we had top-notch undergraduate education.”
Since inheriting the remnants of former University President Ken Keller’s “Commitment to Focus” plan in 1988, Hasselmo has set out to revamp every area of the undergraduate experience, from admission standards and advising to retention and graduation rates.
Getting In
To a freshman just entering the University, the sweeping changes associated with U2000’s undergraduate efforts have already shaped their academic lives. One of the first effects of the U2000 plan entering students encounter are the stiffer admission standards. These standards have forced K-12 schools to revise their curricula to meet the increased demands.
“An area where we have a big effect is in saying what it is that we expect of students who come to the University,” said Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “If we set that challenge appropriately, then I think there is a motivational factor (in K-12 students).”
Marshak added that before the University first raised its admissions standards in 1991, only 17 percent of students entering the University at that time would have met the new admission requirements. In 1995 that number had increased to 85 percent.
Administrators use an admissions formula that is based on class rank and standardized test scores. If the student meets the cutoff formula number, then admissions representatives look at whether or not the student has taken all the classes required for admission. The required course list was revised in 1986, requiring more math, foreign language and other classes for admission, but did not officially take effect until 1991.
Wayne Sigler, director of University Admissions, said students who meet the tougher standards are better prepared to handle the work associated with earning an undergraduate degree, so they will stay at the University and graduate faster.
The University is doing its part to help K-12 students prepare themselves for an increasingly competitive undergraduate environment with more than 300 programs. The initiatives vary widely in function, from early reading and literacy to helping students and parents deal with homework.
One such program is Web 66, a popular University website that connects K-12 students and teachers with university professors around the world. “Web 66 was the first school-based Internet website, and now it gets literally thousands of calls per day,” said Bob Bruininks, dean of the College of Education and Human Development.
Many high school students already take classes at the University through post-secondary programs, which allow students to complete high school requirements while starting University core requirements.
And more students than ever are applying to the University, increasing competition for admission to the University’s undergraduate programs. Freshman applications increased 20 percent from 1993 to 1995, and the University has gone from last place to third place in “selectivity” in the Big Ten in the past two years.
“(U2000) identifies undergraduate education and it sets certain aspirations concerning the type of student we should serve,” Hasselmo said. “Eighty percent of our incoming freshmen should be from the top 25 percent of the graduating class.”
Although some, including members of the Progressive Student Organization who have criticized U2000 since its inception, might think being more selective is elitist, others believe that it is necessary.
“I personally believe that getting a four-year degree is a dime a dozen these days, so I don’t believe being more selective is elitist,” said Amy Krout, an American Indian Studies senior. “People should have the scholastic ability to be here.”
The number of incoming freshmen in the top quarter of their graduating class has increased by about 3 percent since 1992, a difference of 700 students.
“We believe this year’s academic class was the best prepared of any entering class in University history,” Sigler said.
You’ve made it this far …
To create a more tightly-knit community out of what has traditionally been a commuter campus, administrators set out to increase on-campus housing options.
“What we want is to create as much of an undergraduate residential experience as we can,” said McKinley Boston, vice president for Student Development and Athletics.
Last year, Roy Wilkins Hall — an apartment-style dormitory — was built on campus, and plans are in place to build another hall in the next year or so. The new hall will be housed in what is now the Mineral Resources Research Center, located at 56 East River Road.
Since 1986, the percentage of freshmen living on campus has increased from 45 percent to 70 percent.
Marshak said the residence halls were not filled in the 1980s, but due to a national trend that emphasizes the importance of living on campus, they have filled — and overflowed — requiring the University to build more halls.
Studies have shown that students who live on campus have a better retention rate and perform better in their classes.
To attract and retain Minnesota’s top-quality high school students, the University has also attempted to offer them competitive financial aid packages.
“If the goal is to attract a more knowledgeable class of students, then you have to offer those high achievers some competent scholarships, or they go places that have them,” said Director of Scholarships and Financial Aid Sheryl Spivey.
Spivey suggested top students could be recruited by offering expanded scholarship programs, and expanded financial aid packages could increase retention for all students.
Though nothing formal has happened in the way of increased scholarship funding from the University, there are plans in the works, Spivey said.
“There are plans in place to try to come up with the dollars to keep the gifted students in place,” she said. “I would like to see the University of Minnesota financial aid office in a place where we can offer students financial aid for the first two years without any student loans.”
However, these proposals will require increased funding, both from the University and from the federal government. Signs at the government level are encouraging.
“The feds, for the first time,” Spivey said, “are increasing federal dollars at a rate higher than they did since 1979, and that’s really good.
“The package for new students this year should look very attractive,” she said. “Students coming in this fall will be very happy with their award packages.”
Once students complete the first leg of their higher education marathon, they face the real challenge: completing a baccalaureate degree.
Administrators have attempted to eliminate many of the hurdles students have complained about in the past by decreasing class sizes and increasing faculty teaching loads.
Class sizes have shrunk significantly, especially on the Twin Cities campus where the average size of a class has been reduced by 23 percent since 1986. Class size has shrunk by 11 percent system-wide. The average class size in 1986 was 33, and by last year, that figure had shrunk to 28.
Colleges and departments have achieved the smaller sizes in large introductory courses by providing funding for more instructors in departments in which extremely large classes existed.
But these are only averages. Several classes are filled quarterly with hundreds of students. Psychology 1001 had more than 650 students enrolled last fall.
“I do think that class sizes need to be reduced,” said psychology senior Rachael Levy. “Even in the upper level classes, class sizes are still pretty large.
“I could’ve learned more if I hadn’t been in settings that were large group settings with little or no interaction or discussion.”
The number of class hours taught by tenured or tenure-track professors has also increased since the 1980s. In 1986, only 23 percent of class hours were taught by professors. By 1995 that number had increased to 40 percent.
Marshak said many professors have been taking on larger class loads. He also said that in the last few years more teachers have recognized the importance of teaching.
But the improvements in undergraduate instruction have not been just quantitative, but also qualitative, according to University officials. Carol Carrier, associate vice president for Human Resources, said that three major programs are currently active in promoting better-quality instruction at the University.
The Bush Foundation’s Faculty Development Program matches tenure-track or newly tenured faculty with experienced faculty mentors for one year.
“It supports the concept of preparation for people who want to become faculty members,” Carrier said of the program.
The Faculty and TA Enrichment Program teaches instructors how to evaluate their own teaching skills. And the Preparing Future Faculty program helps graduate students learn how to be effective teachers. Both programs offer short courses for participants.
The enrichment courses encourage teachers to get input from their students before the end of the quarter so they can make changes that might help the students learn better.
“They might try to do a sort of mid-quarter survey or set of questions that will allow them to understand if there are problems that they need to address,” Carrier said, “so that they don’t wait until the end of the course to learn that.”
Carrier said that about 150 of the University’s 195 departments have participated in the teaching initiatives.
Administrators have also started to measure the success of a teacher’s methods by reviewing teacher evaluations students fill out at the end of the quarter. Carrier said the evaluations are part of the criteria for tenure review, or gaining tenure in the first place.
Reaching the ultimate goal
Administrators not only want to change what students experience in the classrooms, but improve what factors affect their total University experience.
Hasselmo said the administration would like to see more students graduate in five years or less.
“That means we have to remove every obstacle that the University puts in the way of that graduation,” he said. About 31 percent of the 1986 entering classes graduated in five years or less. For the entering class of 1991, that figure had increased to 41 percent. Administrators say they would like to see that number at 50 percent.
But some people are concerned that pushing people to graduate faster will have negative side effects.
“I think that the biggest stress should be put on making sure people get the education they desire,” said Levy. “I think that if they try to get people to graduate too fast they’re going to overlook things that they need to know.” Levy cited language and cultural courses as being important to a broad education.
Hasselmo tried to address this concern in the early 1990s, when he appointed a task force to examine liberal education requirements. The task force produced a report that stated, among other things, that students should take courses that draw from the broad range of disciplines at the University.
The task force also recommended that the liberal education requirements be the same for all colleges at the University.
“For liberal education requirements, it makes no difference whether you’re in the College of Liberal Arts, agriculture, natural resources or IT,” said Richard Skaggs, former chairman of the Council on Undergraduate Education.
The change in liberal education requirements also fits in with administrators’ goals to help students graduate sooner.
“Students were getting into the position where they did the liberal education requirements in one college, switched to another college that had different requirements, and it would take longer for them to graduate,” Skaggs said.
Advising students about how to efficiently fill the requirements is another part of the undergraduate initiatives.
“(Students) should not take longer (to graduate) because they don’t get good advice or they choose the wrong major because they were not properly advised,” Hasselmo said.
The main advising improvements have been in the student-to-adviser ratio. More advisers have been hired to reach this goal. In 1986, there were 577 students to each adviser. In 1996, the ratio declined to 275 to one.
The removal of institutional obstacles to earning a degree is just one way that administrators are working towards their ultimate goal: adequately preparing students for the future.
“We basically believe the world is a pretty tough place,” Marshak said. “And we believe that our students are very, very capable, and we want them to succeed. We want them to have a background level that will prepare them to go anywhere in the world and be a success and to compete with anybody who comes out of any university in the world.”
Tomorrow: Outreach and access.