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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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At Minnesota, Average Students Get Short Shrift

— The University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and St. Paul, a large public university with more than 25,000 undergraduates, is worried about its reputation. Will the creation of a single residential college designed just for honors students help?

U aims to burnish image, lure top students

‘Medium-quality’ status a drawback, analysis says

Many of the nation’s best and brightest students consider the University of Minnesota a “medium-quality school,” not in the same class as Michigan or Wisconsin.

The university is not viewed as a “medallion” destination by top academic prospects. Even honors students who choose Minnesota rate its academic quality lower than the schools they turned down, according to an internal university analysis.

“Medium-quality, high-affordability” schools like the University of Minnesota must keep tuition low or offer big scholarships to lure good students. “Medallion schools” can charge higher tuition and offer fewer merit scholarships.

Well, fair enough. The silly “medallion school” label must come from a hired advertising agent, but there is certainly nothing wrong in general with a desire to improve the quality of any institution—indeed, it should be regarded as a perpetual obligation.

But among the recommendations being considered is this:

A Regents Scholars Option. This would be a small, residential college experience for top students, said Kathryn Sikkink, a political science professor who co-chaired a task force on revamping honors programs. Surveys show students who turn down the university worry about class size, individual attention and scholarships, she said. Regents Scholars also might get priority admission to the university’s medical and other professional schools.

Shouldn’t the mass of students who don’t turn down the university also worry about class size, individual attention, and scholarships? If a small, residential college experience would be good for “top students,” wouldn’t it good for all? The message is clear: if you’re an average student, the University of Minnesota acknowledges that it can’t and won’t give you a very good educational experience.

Minnesota’s proposed residential college just for top students is like the model apartment you’re shown if you inquire about renting rooms in an apartment complex. The model apartment will always be freshly painted and elegantly furnished and will be featured prominently in all the advertising. The apartment you actually get may well have holes in the wall, cracks in the ceiling, and a view of the dumpster.

The story continues:

While it aspires to be a “medallion school” it continues to be seen in a tier that includes the University of Iowa, Indiana University and Ohio State, concluded senior analyst Ronald Matross, who examined survey responses from more than 1,100 University of Minnesota applicants whose high school performance put them in potential honors range.

Matross reported that having a five-year graduation rate of more than 65 percent plays a big role in perceptions of quality. [In perceptions of quality? Isn’t a low graduation rate a measure of quality? —RJO] The university’s five-year rate for students entering in 1999 came in at 56 percent, improved but still among the lowest in the Big Ten.

“Substantial change” in the university’s image, he said, is likely only when its results for students match those of the “medallion schools.”

The students at Minnesota would be better served if the university made improved results the goal—improved results for all—and let the university’s image take care of itself.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2016