Minnesota's future vitality requires that the University of Minnesota do a superior job in educating and retaining the state's college students while also attracting students from beyond our borders. Students educated here may tend to remain, while many who leave for college elsewhere never return. So we must both produce and retain well-educated people — our most important resource.

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel noted in a 2020 campus letter that a "cornerstone of our campus community is our world-class instruction." But what does "world-class instruction" mean? And how will we know if it is achieved?

U.S. News & World Report and the Wall Street Journal annually rank U.S. undergraduate programs. The U is tied for 66th in the 2021 U.S. News rankings of "national universities" that emphasize research. It is tied for 26th among public universities and is 9th in the Big Ten. Fifty percent of U freshmen were in the top 10% of their high school class, ranking 7th in the Big Ten.

In small classes with under 20 students, the U's 38% ranks ninth in the Big Ten. Seven Big Ten schools have a lower percentage of large classes (50 students or more) than our 19%. The U's six-year graduation rate of 83% ranks ninth in the Big Ten.

The Wall Street Journal 2020 College Rankings place the U 91st in the U.S. and eighth in the Big Ten. For "engagement" — real-world preparation and student interaction — the U ranks 48th, behind six Big Ten rivals. In terms of "outcomes" — return on investment from their degree after graduation — it ranks 60th, seventh in the Big Ten. In "academic resources" — expenditures on teaching and student services — the U ranks an abysmal 260th.

Do these data reflect actions to improve learning among U undergraduates?

Huge challenges exist today in educating undergraduates. Prof. David Gelernter notes that "today's 18-year-olds are worse-educated than teens in the 1960s." International rankings placed U.S. children first in the 1950s. By 2015, they had fallen to 24th in reading on the Program for International Student Assessment.

Research shows that heavy screen use reduces student attention spans, comprehension and abstract reasoning — probably producing the stress causing 40% of entering U freshmen to seek counseling.

Profs. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed 2,300 college students and found they averaged only 12 hours per week of studying, less than half the 1960s target. Yet they found 55% earned at least a B+ grade-point average. Sadly, 36% achieved no meaningful improvement in critical thinking, writing and reasoning during their four college years.

Contingent faculty (CF) instructors — not professors or graduate students — teach over 60% of U undergraduate class hours. Many CF instructors have master's or Ph.D. degrees. A University of California, Berkeley study showed CF instructors averaged $22,400 annually for teaching eight classes. U professors earn many times what CF instructors earn for each class taught. Curiously, these experienced CF instructors rarely have a say in curriculum planning.

Effective planning requires specific "performance metrics" to test whether a plan is meeting objectives. In university strategic plans, these are seldom defined or made public. This means there is rarely a red flag the public sees — like a football coach's 2-9 won-lost record — that forces corrective action.

Looking at the Arum-Roksa data above, the challenging task now is to measure whether U undergraduates actually achieve the planned learning and critical thinking skills in earning their degrees. This requires meaningful course learning objectives students understand, quality instructors working to achieve them and research to determine if real learning occurs.

The learning objectives listed in the course syllabus are the gold standard. They identify the skills — knowing terms and facts and applying the principles — students should acquire from a course. At course completion, students should be asked two questions: 1) How important was the objective? And 2) how well did you achieve it? This measures both buy-in and perceived success.

To achieve this undergraduate learning, the U requires instructors who know their subjects, teach well, want to be there, have a say in course design, can earn a living doing it and are treated equitably.

William Rudelius is professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota.