College’s stats tell dismal tale

by Gregg Aamot

Six decades ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, University administrators created a program that promised to help underprepared students earn a college degree.
Since then, General College has served thousands of students who might never have sought a college education, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Yet over the years, a system has emerged in which more than 80 percent of the students who enroll in General College never earn a University degree. Meanwhile, the college has built a network of student services and reaped millions of dollars from the federal government and other sources for developmental education programs.
According to University records and General College reports collected by The Minnesota Daily:
ù About 10 percent of General College students earn a degree in five years while just 17 percent graduate within eight years. Rates for the rest of the student body are 40 percent and 55 percent for five and eight years, respectively.
ù About 45 percent of the students who enroll in General College leave the University after two years, although some transfer to other schools in the state. Within five years of beginning their studies, nearly 40 percent of General College students are out of school altogether.
ù Less than 25 percent of General College students transfer to a degree-granting college at the University within three years of beginning their studies, although data suggests the rate is improving.
ù General College houses a network of grant-supported community outreach and student support programs. To support this network, the college has collected more than $15 million since 1976 from the federal government and other sources.
ù For this fiscal year, the college will collect $1.6 million — roughly one-fourth its total budget — from outside sources.
The Daily also found that over the last decade alone, the University failed to graduate dozens of athletes who were recruited and placed in General College.
According to athletics department documents, about 300 athletes enrolled in General College between 1986 and 1996. Although records are incomplete, statistics show that about 70 percent of the athletes placed in General College during a three-year period in the 1980s never graduated.
Continuing debate
Although it’s been eight months since the University’s Board of Regents blocked an administrative plan to eliminate General College, pressure to close or overhaul the school recently resurfaced.
A commission appointed by Gov. Arne Carlson concluded in November that developmental education — enhancing literacy and study skills through experimental programs and special services — should be handled by the state university system instead of a research institution. A Board of Regents-appointed task force is also reviewing the effectiveness of developmental education in both General College and Minnesota’s state universities.
“The criticisms are valid,” said Marvin Marshak, the University’s senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “Not all educational programs are equally effective, and that is something that needs to be examined.”
Closing General College is one of several ideas proposed in the past year by University President Nils Hasselmo’s administration in an attempt to modernize higher education at the University. Other, higher-profile initiatives include tenure reform and the merger between University Hospital and Fairview Health Systems.
Hasselmo, who will retire at the end of the school year, believes such measures will lead to more efficiency and higher graduation rates as the University approaches the next century.
“We are not contemplating making a proposal concerning the change of the college structure,” Hasselmo said in September. “But the issue of how we can serve underprepared students — that is very much on the table.”
Hasselmo and other administrators contend that General College’s final product — the percentage of students it graduates — is too low to justify its existence at a modern university.
Some University professors and students and several Twin Cities organizations, including the Citizens League, the Minnesota High-Technology Council and the University Alumni Association, publicly expressed support for closing the college.
“University President Nils Hasselmo was courageous in pointing out publicly that General College should mean more than entry, but also academic success,” wrote alumni association representatives Linda Mona and Ann Huntrods in a letter published in the Daily. “True access means not only recruitment, but retention and graduation.”
Supporters of General College, meanwhile, believe the school is integral in creating educational opportunities for less-advantaged students, particularly urban minorities. As a land-grant institution, supporters say, the University must provide an education for a broad spectrum of students.
McKinley Boston, the University’s vice president for Student Development and Athletics, said the college enriches the University by recruiting a critical mass of minority students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.
Supporters also point out that General College has spawned several distinguished alumni, including local television journalist Dave Moore and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, a General College student in the 1930s.
Tensions about the college’s future peaked last spring when protestors accused administrators of racism and elitism for suggesting that General College is not doing its job. The school’s backers also charged that administrators selectively presented data that supported their position.
General College Dean David Taylor said at the time that the college was being used as a scapegoat for the poor record of General College students, who ultimately must transfer and graduate from another college. “We’re being blamed simply because they start out here,” he said.
Yet records show that most General College students do not transfer to degree-granting colleges. According to General College’s research and evaluation office, of the students who entered the school between 1987 and 1992, just 24 percent transferred within three years of study. Officials note that the three-year rate for students entering in 1991 and 1992 increased to about 37 percent.
Higher cost
In addition to grants from federal and private sources and local governments, General College receives about $4.6 million annually from the University’s central fund, money that is spent on such things as salaries and equipment. With about 1,400 students and a total budget of $6.2 million, the school is comparable in size to some rural community colleges.
For years after its creation in 1932, the school provided catch-up courses in reading and math as a way for students to eventually earn a degree or gain entrance into another college.
The college added the Student Parent Help Center in the 1960s, which currently serves about 450 University students. Tutoring services in math and writing have been enhanced since the 1970s and are currently housed in General College’s Academic Resource Center.
In addition to developing University-funded student services, however, the school has evolved into an academic research center that focuses not on simply teaching underprepared students, but on studying how those students can be better taught. Besides University funds, hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants support research projects, community outreach programs and additional counseling and tutoring services.
Federally funded programs aimed at helping General College students cope with college life include Student Support Services, a tutoring and mentoring program, and McNair Scholars, a program for students planning to attend graduate school.
Other programs sponsored by outside dollars target the development of local adolescents and high school students. Girls with Disabilities and University Day Community, for instance, offer counseling and treatment for youth from the metro area. Those programs are funded through grants from the National Science Foundation and Hennepin County, respectively. Upward Bound, a federal program, also prepares local high school kids for college.
In part because of the services provided by the school, the cost of educating a student is higher in General College than it is in other University colleges. Costs are also higher, administrators say, because the college was ordered in the 1980s to reduce class sizes, a move that cut into tuition revenue.
According to General College’s research and evaluation office, it costs about $7,000 to educate a GC student per year, compared with about $3,000 for freshman and sophomores in the College of Liberal Arts and $5,000 for those in the Institute of Technology. (Annual costs for juniors and seniors in CLA and IT jump to about $4,700 and $7,500, respectively).
Marshak, the senior vice president, said questions about General College’s cost-effectiveness are legitimate. But he also said access for underprepared students must be maintained.
“There may be strategies out there that we could use that are cheaper, yet would allow us to attain our goals to a high degree,” he said.
Under one plan, General College would close and more students would be admitted to the College of Liberal Arts. Another idea, suggested last spring by Provost W. Phillips Shively, calls for metro community colleges to absorb many students eligible for General College.
Unique mission
Terry Collins, director of Academic Affairs and Curriculum in General College, defends the contributions of developmental education. “The purpose (of developmental education research) is two-fold: to build a better program and to inform people who work in other places about best practices,” he said.
Ideally, said Collins, developmental education adds value to the college experience and creates an environment in which poorly prepared students can succeed.
Yet Marshak and other high-ranking administrators concede that the extent to which General College programs actually enhance an education has never been accurately measured. Determining such outcomes might be key to decisions about the college’s future.
Taylor, the General College dean, steadfastly backs the college’s record. And he rejects any attempt to judge the school by the number of degree-earning students it generates.
“We are here to serve as a vehicle of access to prepare students to move into areas where they can get a degree,” said Taylor in an interview last summer. “We are not a degree-granting college.
“The question then becomes, `What happens in those colleges that doesn’t allow students to succeed?’ That is a University problem,” he said.
Taylor also said graduation rates can’t accurately measure the long-term impact of any school that focuses on developmental education.
Consider, for instance, students who enroll in General College, only to drop out after a few quarters. Those individuals, Taylor maintains, will nonetheless recognize the value of a secondary education, foster that attitude in their families and insist that their children go to college.
“In that way, we’ve helped another generation,” Taylor said.
General College backers also point out that the school’s cost is a fraction of the University’s overall budget, which is about a billion dollars annually.
Help or hindrance?
General College administrators often tout the “University experience” when recruiting potential students. The prospect of attending a culturally rich, Big Ten school is pitched to students otherwise shooting for community or technical college educations.
Yet many General College students fall into a routine that separates them from the rest of the University — a pattern one top administrator said hampers rather than enables students in their pursuit of a degree.
“I think it gets to the point where (students) see the same people over and over, and it gets to be a closed world,” said Karine Michael, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts who worked as a peer adviser in General College. “When you venture out to CLA, you aren’t prepared for what it’s like. It’s not as personal of an environment. You end up getting lost.”
Although General College employs more than two dozen tenured faculty and several professional advisers, some academic advising is done by undergraduate peer advisers and graduate assistants. For most of this decade, in fact, peer advisers were the main contact for hundreds of students.
Michael said she thinks most peer advisers are not equipped to provide adequate service to fledgling students. Classes designed to develop students’ study skills have been taught by student peers as well.
“I’m not knocking the importance of peer advising, but they need more faculty, more professionals doing the advising,” Michael said.
Vanessa Steele, a CLA senior who attended General College and served as a peer adviser, also said contact between students and faculty members is insufficient.
“It seems like once you get in General College, only a few people have a vested interest in getting you through,” Steele said. “Even those that make it and get into a CLA class, say a poli sci class with hundreds of people, can get really discouraged.”
After last spring’s debate over the college’s future, administrators instituted changes in the school’s advising program. According to Mary Ellen Shaw, an associate counselor advocate in General College, every student is now paired with a professional adviser.
“The students are closely monitored. If they aren’t doing well, their advisers are notified right away,” Shaw said. “If we catch it early enough, we can change the course of action.”
Much of the criticism surrounding General College centers on transfer and graduation rates. But Shaw said the college’s advising program is meant to transcend traditional academic and career counseling.
“Advising here is more connected to students’ whole life and tied to their development, to help them cut through the red tape,” she said. “We try to be a place where that can all be pulled together.”
Sports pipeline
Although athletics department records are incomplete, statistics indicate that hundreds of athletes recruited by the University and placed in General College have never received a degree.
Of the athletes who entered General College between the 1986-87 and 1988-89 school years, for instance, 21 of 67 had graduated after seven years. An athletics department official said these figures do not represent abnormal graduation levels for athletes who start in General College.
Of all the athletic programs on campus, the football, men’s basketball and men’s hockey teams utilize General College the most.
On average, 28 football players have been enrolled in General College during any given year since 1986, according to athletic department documents. Meanwhile, the men’s basketball team has averaged about five players in the college and the hockey team six players during any given year.
It’s unclear, however, to what extent the elimination of General College would affect University athletics. Although General College is unique to the Big Ten, most universities are able to admit athletes with sub-par academic records.
Elayne Donahue, director of academic counseling in the athletics department, said coaches and counselors encourage student-athletes to use General College services as much as possible.
Without the school, Donahue said, the University would miss the chance to offer scholarships to some talented high school athletes who are underprepared academically.
But she said the University could still offer athletes General College-like services. “If the University did not have General College, I assume that much of what (the college) does would be done some other way,” she said.
A question of diversity
Most University administrators say they are committed to two tenets of General College’s mission: serving underprepared students and creating a racially diverse community.
Whether General College — 30 percent of which consists of racial minorities — should continue to be a means to those ends remains in question.
“If they think they need to (close General College), but are still committed to diversity, then they have to find a way to provide for minorities,” said vice president Boston. “Until I’m convinced that they can do it, I think General College has a role to play.”
Boston also said the University’s overall graduation rate — meager by Big Ten standards — surely contributes to the low number of General College students who finish school.
“General College’s legacy is more than numbers,” said Boston, who attended General College in the 1960s and went on to earn a doctorate at New York University. “Part of it is contributing to that critical mass (of diverse students) and giving people an opportunity.”