U seeks to ‘enhance the undergraduate experience’

The Office of Undergraduate Education wants to retain more first year students and push them to graduate in four years.

Adam Daniels

With an eye on graduation rates, the University of Minnesota has set forth guideposts to help improve what they call the âÄúundergraduate experience.âÄù This includes everything from new recruitment techniques to improving advising to increasing the four-year graduation rate. âÄúThis has to be a holistic effort,âÄù Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Robert McMaster said to a Board of Regents committee Thursday. âÄúThis really has to be a message through the whole [University] community.âÄù Freshman enrollment has steadily grown over the past five years from 28,645 to 30,519. And while first year applications increased from 24,658 in 2006 to 36,800 in 2010, McMaster said this rate has been leveling off and will continue to in the next few years as the number of high school graduates within the state shrinks. The numbers âÄúdeceptively underestimateâÄù the challenge of continuing to improve the number of students that succeed, committee chair Regent Patricia Simmons said. McMaster said a critical part of improving graduation rates is improving first-year retention rates, which has gone from 84.4 percent retention for first years who began in fall 2000 to 89.5 percent for those who began in fall 2009 âÄî half a percent less than the original goal set forward by the committee. The OUE plans to continue work on retention by enhancing first-year programs such as Welcome Week, ensuring availability for courses students need and sending the âÄúmessage [of] 30 credits per year as âÄònormal.âÄôâÄù At 29.4 percent, the University has a high number of transfer students when compared to the University of IowaâÄôs 22 percent and the University of WisconsinâÄôs 17.1 percent. It was discussed that a closer relationship with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, who churn out a majority of these students, will be necessary to ensure readiness. With the goal of reaching a 60 percent four-year graduation rate for the class that started in fall 2008, thereâÄôs âÄúa lot of ground to make up,âÄù McMaster said. âÄúBut we think we can do it. The four-year graduation rate has increased from 15.2 percent in 1996 to 50 percent in 2010. Over the same period, the five-year rate went from 38.1 percent to 66.2 percent and the six-year rate from 43.5 percent to 70.4 percent. To help increase the number in the four-year column and get to that 60 percent, the OUE created the Center for Academic Planning and Exploration. The advising center opened in September and aims to help students who are having trouble deciding on a major. ThereâÄôs also APlus, a new automated advising tool that provides real-time data to academic advisers. This helps make it easier for them to inform students what courses they need to graduate. In terms of overall size, the perception, McMaster said, is that the University is very large at the undergraduate level, but itâÄôs relatively average in size compared to others in the Big Ten. Still, McMaster said University preparedness is key in moving forward. âÄúFor any kind of particular growth âĦ the budget model becomes the issue,âÄù he said. âÄúIf one is going to grow enrollment, there has to be the commensurate growth in resources for the curriculum.âÄù