Evan Ramstad, Star Tribune digital business editor, looks at how Minnesota works, explaining what’s behind the headlines and meeting with people who keep the wheel turning.

Are kids skating through college?

Posted by: Evan Ramstad Updated: April 28, 2014 - 10:48 AM

A close reader of our business web page last week would have noticed that one article was in our "most read" list all week long. That doesn't happen often and the item wasn't major breaking news or one of our enterprise features. It was this column by Howard Root, CEO of Vascular Solutions, a Minneapolis-based medical device maker with about $100 million in annual revenue. In it, Root accused the University of Minnesota of pumping out undergrads with degrees that suggest they are ready for work in companies like his but are not.

He gave an example of a person who is graduating with a degree in scientific and technical communication but didn't have a hard science course on his transcript. The courses Root cited from this particular individual read like a list from the adult education courses that suburban parks and recreation departments offer.

Root wrote that the student "took college classes in karate, guitar, Latin dance, handball, saber fencing, golf and master gardening. Then, for some of his core curriculum, he took courses in team leadership, Internet tools, visual rhetoric, intimate relationships, proposals and grants, exploring the universe, and technology and self."

At first glance, Root's column seemed to be the latest incarnation of that age-old sentiment expressed as something like, "These young kids today don't know how easy they've got it." But the high volume of readership -- and the strong reaction Root provoked -- suggests he put his finger on something more important than that. Later in the week, we printed some letters to the editor and a column written by Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at the U. The campus newspaper at the U weighed in with its own editorial.

On Friday, Root said he had received about 200 emails through the week, most agreeing with his view that colleges have gone soft. "Other colleges have similar issues," he said, but he noted the U's problems are amplified because of the huge role it plays in the state. He said about 25% of the people applying for jobs at his company come from the U.

He said he thinks the column struck a nerve because the data on new college grads shows they have such a tough time finding work. He first blames the slow-ish recovery of the economy from the 2008 downturn, but that excuse only goes so far here in Minnesota, which for the past couple of years has had one of the strongest-performing economies in the U.S. But second, Root said, students aren't ready.

McMaster said on Friday that he decided to write the op-ed piece, which appeared in Saturday's paper, because the leadership of the U for the last 15 years or so has worked hard to improve undergraduate education. The U has been fighting to overcome a stigma created in the 1970s and early 1980s when its undergraduate program turned to mush with huge classes, the disappearance of letter grades and irregular course scheduling.

"There's a set of students who did not have a good experience here," McMaster said. "We're not happy about that but that's the way it is."

But it's not the U today, he said. The entrance requirements and core curriculum are tougher. Next year, high school graduates will need to have four years of math to be admitted to the U. And it's already the case that, once in the U, undergrads have to take a science course with a lab.

"We've really amped up the quality of the undergraduate experience, the rigor of the curriculum, the kinds of students we're bringing here and we know our graduates are well educated," McMaster said. "We don't want to sound defensive, but we're pretty confident in what we've done."

That said, he added, "Can I say definitively that of the thousands of students we graduate, some didn't get through with less science? No. That's probably what happened."

His boss, Provost Karen Hanson, said she encourages employers to call the university's academic departments and career services office with questions about courses they see on the transcripts of prospective hires. A 1970 graduate of the U, she noted that some new names for courses may have contributed to the impression that the work isn't as tough. Professors, she says, have modified course names to attract students. McMaster noted that a course in his department, geography, that might have had a number like "Geography 101" or "Geogrophy 203"  in the past might now have a name like "Biogeography of the Global Garden." That particular course is about why plants and rocks and other geographic features are where they are.

Meanwhile, the university is about halfway into the implementation of a project called "Writing Enriched Curriculum." In that, writing courses and projects will be emphasized in all majors. The U is one of the leaders in an earlier effort known as "Writing Across the Curriculum" and will host a conference on it for other colleges and universities this summer.

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