Coralie Carlson

An unprecedented number of high school graduates flocked to college campuses last fall, reinforcing the notion that a high school diploma alone can’t buy a ticket to a sunny future.
A report released Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67 percent of high school graduates entered the college ranks across the country in 1997, up 5 percent since earlier this decade. The University underwent a similar boost as freshman enrollment and applications are up for the sixth straight year.
These record numbers combined with larger high school graduating classes put pressure on colleges to support the influx of students.
“Nationally, the colleges have to be ready to serve those students,” said Phil Lewenstein, director of communications for the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office.
University officials said high enrollment standards protect the school from an overload of students and a resulting drop in education quality — claiming the standards insure a balance between access and excellence.
“There is no reason that you have to compromise one to achieve the other,” said Board of Regents Chairman William Hogan. For the past two years, the board has held numerous discussions on how to boost the school’s rankings without closing its doors to interested high school graduates.
Enrollment numbers picked up partially because more students see the need for technical training, the Department of Labor report said.
“I am delighted to see that more and more of our young people see a college degree as more than just a piece of paper, but rather as the ticket to success in the 21st century,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman.
In 1997, enrollment rates among male high school graduates reached 63.5 percent, similar to Vietnam era levels when men turned to college to evade the draft. Of female 1997 graduates, 70.3 percent went on to college.
The amount of high school graduates also continues to rise, amplifying the impact on higher education institutions. Minnesota’s graduating class is projected to rise 15 percent from 1996 to 2012. By 2012, 61,586 high school students will receive diplomas.
But University officials said bigger graduating classes alone don’t account for the school’s upswing.
“Demographics account for some, but our numbers run well ahead of that,” said Wayne Sigler, Office of Admissions director.
Applications to the University rose 48 percent since 1992, when officials implemented an aggressive recruiting strategy under the University 2000 plan. U2000 is a set of initiatives implemented under former University President Nils Hasselmo to strengthen the school’s commitment to undergraduate education.
Under U2000, officials raised admissions standards, but Sigler said it hasn’t deterred prospective freshman from applying. Students who meet the higher standards are less likely to drop out.
“We’re not raising standards to keep people out of the University; we’re raising standards to keep people in the University,” Sigler said.
Statewide college enrollment figures don’t reveal the same growth patterns as the University and nation. After three years of declines, overall enrollment increased by .07 percent in fall 1997.
Minnesota state schools want to augment enrollment and could benefit from the national uptick, Lewenstein said.
— This article contains information from The Associated Press