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Academic Excellence Matters to Minnesota

By Robert H. Bruininks

It happens all the time: I mention the caliber of students we admit to the campuses of the University of Minnesota these days, and someone says, "Gee, Bob--you and I couldn't even get in now, could we?"

Sometimes the question is asked in amazement at how far we've come; sometimes it's veiled criticism, suggesting we're losing sight of our public mission. Regardless, the answer is the same: "No, we probably couldn't." Although I grew up in rural Michigan and never applied to the U, I know that by today's standards, I wouldn't have cut it. This is not simply because we've become more selective, however. The University admits the same percentage of Minnesota students as it always has; they're just better prepared.

It's a different world--and our responsibility is to educate and graduate students, not simply admit them. Over the course of the last decade, the University has made a concerted effort to strengthen the preparation of incoming students, the quality of their educational experience, and the value of their knowledge and abilities to Minnesota and the nation:

• We are actively working to improve teacher preparation, college readiness and school leadership in order to ensure that every Minnesota student graduates from high school prepared to succeed in higher education.

• Our efforts to recruit better-prepared students and the breadth and depth of our academic offerings continue to drive strong demand for University of Minnesota degrees.

• Initiatives to ease the transition to college and promote academic progress--including Welcome Week, improved advising and academic planning tools, and incentives for taking full course loads each semester--are driving student success.

• And our strong support of opportunities for students to pursue their passions across traditional academic subjects and disciplines, to work alongside faculty on groundbreaking research projects, and to gain global perspective and international experience sets a University of Minnesota education apart in the state, and increasingly, in the nation.

In addition, our deep commitment to financial aid means that students who may not have thought themselves able to afford a University education are enrolling, persisting, and graduating on time. The University of Minnesota Promise scholarship program alone provides substantial need-based scholarship support to all low- and middle-income undergraduates on all five campuses of the University of Minnesota--approximately 13,000 students total, from Minnesota families earning up to $100,000 per year. As a result of this innovative program, our other need- and merit-based scholarships and grants, and state and federal aid programs, the average price students pay to attend the University of Minnesota has increased just three percent per year over the past nine years.

The impact of these efforts is unmistakable. In the last six years, applications to the Twin Cities campus have nearly doubled to 36,800. In that same period, we've seen steady improvements in the academic profile of incoming students, and steadily climbing retention and graduation rates--today, 91 percent of Twin Cities students continue after their first year, and four-year graduation rates have roughly doubled in the past decade. Each year, we welcome more than 2,000 transfer students from sister institutions across the state and region, and graduate them at very high rates. Last year, the University granted more than 14,000 degrees, including nearly half of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees in the state, and substantially higher percentages of graduate and professional STEM degrees. Many of these students--regardless of where they came from--choose to stay in Minnesota to live, work, and raise their families.

Finally, it's important to note our statewide presence. Our campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Morris and Rochester provide unique educational experiences not found anywhere else in the state. Our systemwide focus on graduating students in a timely manner and strategies to expand online learning opportunities for students statewide are substantially increasing our capacity. Today we are enrolling more students on our five campuses--some 12,400 more since 2005 (bigger than the total enrollment of the Duluth campus)--and producing significantly more degrees per year: more than 600 additional undergraduate degrees, more than 400 additional master's degrees and 250 more doctoral degrees each year than in 2005.

Results like these will be even more important in the future. As schools throughout the region graduate fewer and more diverse students overall, our campuses must continue to become more effective at recruiting, retaining and graduating well-prepared students of all backgrounds in order to keep our best and brightest young people here. We're doing it today--and with the strong support of the state and our fellow citizens, the University of Minnesota will continue to deliver.

Robert H. Bruininks is President of the University of Minnesota.