If you think undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota are mediocre scholars making halting progress toward uncertain graduation, you’re dating yourself. The same is true if you think undergrads on the Twin Cities campus are an afterthought for research-focused faculty and bureaucratic administrators.
By several nationally watched measures, undergraduate education at the U has improved markedly in the past decade. The state’s educational flagship now boasts a freshman-to-sophomore retention rate above 90 percent, matching or exceeding highly regarded private colleges.
By that same measure, it’s doing almost as well with low-income students as with the rest — a dramatic turnaround from years when the university’s ability to help low-income students succeed was in doubt. The same goes for students of color.
The U’s graduation rate, once a source of embarrassment, is another marker of improvement. In 2013, its four-year rate stood at 58.8 percent, higher than the mark registered at peer institutions including Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Texas. It’s not in the 70-percent-plus stratosphere with the nation’s top-rated public research universities — Michigan, UCLA, UC-Berkeley, Illinois. But the U’s climb since 2000, when the four-year rate stood at a lowly 26.1 percent, makes more gain seem possible.
The U is attracting stronger students, which is both a cause and an effect of an improving undergraduate experience. The average ACT score of incoming freshmen in the fall of 2014 was 27.9, on a 36-point scoring scale. Two decades ago, it was 24. That change was not produced by shrinking the student body. To the contrary: Fall enrollment on the Twin Cities campus in 2014 was 10 percent larger than in 2000.
Even Golden Gopher athletes — long tagged as academic laggards — are part of the trend. The U’s athletics department announced last week that for the second consecutive year, its Academic Progress Rate, an NCAA measure, was the highest among public universities in the country.
Those numbers are very good news for Minnesota; they say that at a time when Minnesota’s working-age population growth is projected to stall, the U can both keep more talented young Minnesotans at home and attract top students from other states. A better undergrad program at the U also helps burnish this state’s reputation — contributing, for example, to Minnesota’s recent CNBC ranking as the top state for business.
The U’s undergrad turnaround is no accident. It is the handiwork of several cohorts of university regents and administrators who made a series of shrewd policy moves involving financial aid, academic support, advising and pricing — including a policy of comparatively low nonresident tuition that has recently come under fire. Its critics say — wrongly, we think — that making the university a magnet for top-performing students from other states has produced higher costs and fewer opportunities for Minnesota residents.
In fact, improving academic quality at the U increases opportunity for Minnesotans. It makes a first-rate undergraduate education at a major research university available at a taxpayer-subsidized price. For residents of modest means, that price comes at a substantial discount because of the university’s deep commitment to financial aid.
National academic reputations are lagging indicators. That likely explains why the Twin Cities campus has not much changed its position — yet — in the much-watched U.S. News ranking. Closer to home, however, the gains ought to be noticed — and encouraged.