Retention and rank only half the story

The University of Minnesota managed to retain 90.6 percent of their 2008 freshman class.

Maureen Landsverk

As the haze of excitement clears and the academic adjustment to college life is made, the general freshman reaction is as variable as the incoming class itself. More logical students buckle down and turn up their collars, preparing to make the most of the work laid before them. A moderate crowd searches for distraction in the newfound independence of curfewless nights. Another lesser-known faction takes a deer-in-the-headlights approach and bolts from the University of Minnesota compound, never to be restricted within its walls again. This last collection of ex-students, though still visible in retention figures, is becoming an increasingly smaller portion of students. The average retention rate, or percentage of students who return to the University for credit toward graduation, hit 87.2 percent this year. Although the University is fighting a winning battle with its own past rates, it still ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in terms of average first-year retention, according to U.S. News and World Report. Ranking above only Purdue University and the University of Iowa, Minnesota is comparably ninth of the 11 Division I schools it competes with both academically and athletically. In a report released to the University Board of Regents Educational Policy and Planning Committee on Oct. 8, the past yearâÄôs sophomore retention improved to a much stronger 90.6 percent. Dropout rates affect many aspects of a collegeâÄôs perceived quality. In U.S. NewsâÄô âÄúNational UniversitiesâÄù category, retention and graduation rates are worth a total of 20 percent in the current schema of ranking college excellence. The University of MinnesotaâÄôs rank of 61 among national universities may be largely due to this fact; it is preceded in rank by seven of the 10 other Big Ten universities in U.S. NewsâÄô rankings, correlative to its position in retention rates rankings. Other factors included in U.S. NewsâÄô Best Colleges of 2010 were faculty resources (20 percent), financial resources (10 percent) and ACT/SAT scores (7.5 percent). Surprisingly, the biggest determinant in U.S. News and World ReportâÄôs grading system is a peer assessment category, worth a whopping 25 percent of each collegeâÄôs total score. U.S. News conducts peer assessments by surveying administrative officials from peer institutions on the quality of each otherâÄôs programs. Also affected by retention statistics are graduation rates. Though the UniversityâÄôs four-year graduation rate jumped from 41.1 percent in 2006 to 44.9 percent in 2007, it also still lags behind other Big Ten institutions. Comparably, the University of Wisconsin freshman cohort class of 2004 had a four-year graduation rate of 50.3 percent. In respect to improvements, the University has taken great measures in ensuring its continued academic advancement. Since University President Bob Bruininks initiated a rigorous program to create a top-three research institution out of the University, MinnesotaâÄôs faculty and student body have worked tirelessly to make that dream a reality. BruininksâÄô plan, called strategic positioning, or âÄúTransforming the U,âÄù has reconfigured six existing colleges, introduced a new scope of scholarship options and enlisted the support of four research institutes in an effort to complete its mission toward becoming top-three material. University Provost Tom Sullivan commented on the UniversityâÄôs elevated retention rate and enrollment standards after the Board of Regents meeting: âÄúAs always has been our commitment, we are dedicated to ensuring those [current] students receive an excellent education, continue to challenge themselves inside and outside the classroom and graduate in a timely manner. I am pleased with the continuing progress we have made over the past several years.âÄù Despite the UniversityâÄôs sometimes lackluster performance relative to peer schools, its faculty and staff will continue to challenge limits and redefine what it means to foster aspirations of greatness. Bruininks makes eloquent the argument for an enhanced college education: âÄúTransformative change is never easy, but neither is the alternative: falling behind in impact and relevance âĦ I believe it is our responsibility to meet the future on behalf of Minnesota and its people. To remain competitive and vital in this new century of knowledge, Minnesota needs a top-notch research university.âÄù The University may not be at the top of the conference in areas such as student retention and overall rank. However, its accomplishments and efforts toward furthering its mission to âÄúimprove the human condition through the advancement of knowledgeâÄù have led to new discoveries in all areas of study âÄî which is, after all, our purpose as a research university. Maureen Landsverk welcomes comments at [email protected]