How the U is framing the transfer access-collaboration issue

McMaster

Just over a week ago I wrote about a conversation I had with Robert McMaster, the University of Minnesota’s dean of undergraduate education, about the U’s decision to cut back a little on the number of transfers it’s accepting.

The decision had raised a question in my mind about the U’s commitment to increased cooperation with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, which supplies more than a third of the transfer students to the Twin Cities campus, according to U figures. After all, aside from some administrative efficiencies, what good is UMN-MnSCU collaboration for community college students if it doesn’t improve access to the U?

(And as U President Eric Kaler announced in an unrelated press release today, “As a first-generation college student … I have made access to higher education one of my priorities as president of the University of Minnesota.”)

In the previous post he told me that just a sliver of transfer students will feel the cut. Those will most likely be students with below-average GPAs, and/or who’ve not earned enough credits to show they’re ready to transfer. The U will also tend to favor Minnesota transfers.

Below he essentially defends the small decrease in access, saying it’s more important to make sure those who do get in stay in. He said the cutback is not a reflection of the U’s commitment to collaboration with MnSCU. It won’t affect the Minnesota Cooperative Admissions Program or Minnesota Transfer Curriculum, he said, and is necessary if the U is going to help transfer students succeed.

He told me:

“The real story is not the slight downtick in transfers. It’s really the initiative to improve the overall transfer experience here.”

As part of that initiative, McMaster said, the U is:

  • Proposing to hire a transfer coordinator. That person will “look at establishing better pipelines,” analyze data on the performance of transfer students and improve the orientation programs for them.
  • Looking to improve course access. “Sometimes it has been a problem that when transfer students come here, they can’t get into some of the upper-division classes they need. So we’re looking at (increasing) the number of sections in those courses or increase the size of those classes.”
  • Looking into more on-campus housing. The U is building a new residence hall on Fourth Street, and part of that will be set aside for transfer students. Surveys show many transfer students want to live on campus, he said.
  • Beefing up extracurricular activities.  “This is a place where transfer students struggle. They come in and they haven’t been socialized in the same way that a freshman or a sophomore has. So get them to join a club, participate in an undergraduate research experience, or do a service learning course. That’s a really important part of engagement on campus.
  • Developing specific targets/goals for graduation. The U doesn’t have targets for transfers “as we do for the freshmen,” McMaster said.

That sounds good for students who make the cut. But the U is still decreasing the number of transfers it’s taking in, and thus decreasing access, right?

Some might call this the second move in that direction. You may remember that decreased access (as well as diversity) was an issue raised in 2005 when the U closed its General College. Before its closure, the college was a way for underprepared students to gain access to the U. It had served as what the Encyclopedia of American Education called a “pecursor to the modern community college” when it was founded in 1932.

With one mode of access closed just six years ago, how does McMaster reconcile this newest move with the mission of a land-grant university?

He told me:

“I think the critical point here is really getting at student success. And if students with a small number of credits here are not successful at the university (as data shows), by actually trimming off that group of students … what that means is that the students who are here are going to succeed.”

Here he stresses what might be his main point:

“We’re limiting access (for) that group of students we think will not succeed here. I think that’s the strongest message we can put out. If we know from the characteristics of the students that they’re not going to succeed here and not graduate in a timely way or leave with significant debt, we’re not doing those students any service by bringing them in.”

So how does less access fit in with the message of more collaboration with MnSCU that we’ve been hearing so much about?

McMaster said the U is starting to talk to MnSCU folks to see whether the university can expand both its Minnesota Cooperative Admissions Program and its community college pipeline for students interested in transferring into specific U of M programs. Such a pipeline would require the U to set more specific entrance requirements for transfer students.

He said:

“(College of Biological Sciences officials) have certain characteristics they’re looking for in transfer student – lots of science, basic mathematics, some other requirements. Let’s work with certain community colleges so that if a student who’s interested in biology wants to come here, it’ll be very clear what the criteria will be to get into the college. Same thing with (the College of Liberal Arts), same thing with Education. So we’re looking at enhanced, better-defined pipelines.”

Again, it makes sense from an academic standpoint. Whether that means that true “collaboration” — with a eye toward meaningful access — is on the horizon is something for you to decide.

Ed: On second thought, that sounds like a loaded sentence, which is not my intention. I see McMaster’s logic on this one. Others may disagree, but I’m not necessarily one of them.

  • I think this issue came up in your earlier post: How well we support the students we admit (I work at the U) is as important as how many we admit. An absolute number of admissions is not, in and of itself, “access” if then those students are under-prepared, overwhelmed, or ignored. The issue of access to classes that he points out is a serious one; if you come in with two years under your belt, but then can’t get into your major’s classes, to what have you been given access? In my department, we are understaffed, so our classes are often full before transfers even have a chance to register. The solution is not to admit more students, but to adequately staff the programs we have.

  • I think this issue came up in your earlier post: How well we support the students we admit (I work at the U) is as important as how many we admit. An absolute number of admissions is not, in and of itself, “access” if then those students are under-prepared, overwhelmed, or ignored. The issue of access to classes that he points out is a serious one; if you come in with two years under your belt, but then can’t get into your major’s classes, to what have you been given access? In my department, we are understaffed, so our classes are often full before transfers even have a chance to register. The solution is not to admit more students, but to adequately staff the programs we have.

  • Anonymous

    Alex, I think that you are missing the point of what constitutes “access”. To me (as a faculty member at the U — full disclosure) access means that if you are academically qualified, the U should do all it can to make sure that financial considerations do not mitigate your ability to enroll — whether as a transfer student OR as a freshman. In the face of withering, repeated state budget cuts, it has gotten a LOT harder to provide financial aid, but that’s still the access GOAL.

    However, before addressing the financial side, one does have to get over the “academically qualified” bar. When the number of applications more than doubles (as they have in STEM fields, for example), perforce the bar moves up for what constitutes “qualified”. That’s because space, staff, etc., does not permit the U to simply double its admissions. We admit the total number that we can, and we take the best qualified students because we can then teach at the highest level to benefit those students.

    To some extent, the decision to reduce (slightly, as you’ve repeatedly noted) transfers derives from the huge uptick in freshman applications having moved the “qualified” bar up higher in ALL areas, but the transfer population still looks mostly the same. Nevertheless, someone who for financial reasons chooses to go to a MnSCU school and excels will still be able to transfer successfully because he or she HAS demonstrated the requisite academic ability. From my perspective, at least, the only way the current decision could be regarded as unfair would be if we were turning away BETTER qualified transfer students in order to admit LESS qualified freshman. The data, however (presented to the Regents by McMaster and also repeatedly discussed with the faculty) do not suggest that at all — rather, the freshman admit qualifications keep going up, particularly in certain fields.

  • Anonymous

    Alex, I think that you are missing the point of what constitutes “access”. To me (as a faculty member at the U — full disclosure) access means that if you are academically qualified, the U should do all it can to make sure that financial considerations do not mitigate your ability to enroll — whether as a transfer student OR as a freshman. In the face of withering, repeated state budget cuts, it has gotten a LOT harder to provide financial aid, but that’s still the access GOAL.

    However, before addressing the financial side, one does have to get over the “academically qualified” bar. When the number of applications more than doubles (as they have in STEM fields, for example), perforce the bar moves up for what constitutes “qualified”. That’s because space, staff, etc., does not permit the U to simply double its admissions. We admit the total number that we can, and we take the best qualified students because we can then teach at the highest level to benefit those students.

    To some extent, the decision to reduce (slightly, as you’ve repeatedly noted) transfers derives from the huge uptick in freshman applications having moved the “qualified” bar up higher in ALL areas, but the transfer population still looks mostly the same. Nevertheless, someone who for financial reasons chooses to go to a MnSCU school and excels will still be able to transfer successfully because he or she HAS demonstrated the requisite academic ability. From my perspective, at least, the only way the current decision could be regarded as unfair would be if we were turning away BETTER qualified transfer students in order to admit LESS qualified freshman. The data, however (presented to the Regents by McMaster and also repeatedly discussed with the faculty) do not suggest that at all — rather, the freshman admit qualifications keep going up, particularly in certain fields.

  • Anonymous

    Sigh…

    As usual it is a little more complicated than McMaster lets on.

    You do realize, Joanna, that the U is going to admit an additional thousand or so students next year and this in the case of the overstretched situation we face now.

    As far as student qualifications please note that the admissions rate is about 50%.  Because not everyone accepted enrolls.

    Part of the problem with the record of transfer students in the past is that they have been used to fill up classes due to students dropping out.

    As I said, a complex issue.

    It will be interesting to see what form the vaunted cooperation between the U and MNSCU takes as the economic pie shrinks. Many in the legislature would rather fund MNSCU than the U. Rosenstone is already subtly pushing access over elitism in the jockeying going on.

    • Anonymous

      The 1,000 student increase actually takes place incrementally over 4 years, not just next year (see pp. 18-23 of http://www.academic.umn.edu/provost/reports/documents/FullSSMReportSept23.pdf which also details the financial model to accommodate the increase).

      • Anonymous

        Cough, cough…

        It is an increase. Maybe the financial model should patch up the problems we already obviously have without increasing enrollment?

        And tell me why we have the lowest out of state tuition in the BigTen? I think you are probably smart enough to figure that one out.

        I’m not even going to turn this rock over further right now. As the vise tightens eventually we are going to have to do the right thing(s).

        All in good time.

    • Anonymous

      The 1,000 student increase actually takes place incrementally over 4 years, not just next year (see pp. 18-23 of http://www.academic.umn.edu/provost/reports/documents/FullSSMReportSept23.pdf which also details the financial model to accommodate the increase).

  • Anonymous

    Sigh…

    As usual it is a little more complicated than McMaster lets on.

    You do realize, Joanna, that the U is going to admit an additional thousand or so students next year and this in the case of the overstretched situation we face now.

    As far as student qualifications please note that the admissions rate is about 50%.  Because not everyone accepted enrolls.

    Part of the problem with the record of transfer students in the past is that they have been used to fill up classes due to students dropping out.

    As I said, a complex issue.

    It will be interesting to see what form the vaunted cooperation between the U and MNSCU takes as the economic pie shrinks. Many in the legislature would rather fund MNSCU than the U. Rosenstone is already subtly pushing access over elitism in the jockeying going on.

  • Andy Howe

    One can’t (or shouldn’t) look at access without looking at financial aid policies. McMaster has significantly shifted need-based aid to merit-aid to recruit the most highly qualified first-year students (most likely STEM) while decreasing need-based aid. This was a purposeful design to admit less low-income students (who often take more time to graduate) and use the money from need-based aid to recruit the wealthy (who often take less time to graduate). My hunch is that the group of students he will be “trimming off” will be low-income, which means more money for merit. 

    The programs he is recommending to improve the transfer experience have already been in place for several years, including the transfer coordinator (I know because I was the transfer coordinator at the U). Why even mention them only to present a half truth? There is nothing new there, so those programs will cost no extra money. 

    Instead of deeply supporting low-income and transfer students, McMaster has chosen to limit access and create the illusion that they are adding additional support. When he says, “admit for success,” he really is meaning that the University is not going to change it’s practices and increase support, so admit the most highly qualified (wealthy) students — all others can go to MNSCU. 

    • Anonymous

      I am mystified by this post. So, if I carry your argument to the logical extreme, the U should randomly admit students (maybe by a lottery, since applications will outnumber slots) and then spend whatever it takes to try to bring the less academically qualified ones up to speed. SOOO egalitarian, but not necessarily a recipe for success, IMHO. Either one accepts that a state should have a flagship institution, and admission should be meritocratic, or I guess one does not.

      But, last time I checked, the (current) elected representatives of the state seemed pretty convinced that higher education is no longer a public priority, so our philosophical discussion is unlikely to amount to much… At least we can probably both agree that THAT is a sad state of affairs.

      • Andy Howe

        No, I am not a fan of open admissions. 

        The point is simple…

        If the University is going to admit low-income students (which about 17% of its population is on Pell) then put resources in place to help these students graduate instead of cutting their financial aid and support programs. Indiana University, for example, provides its Pell students free tuition and room and board. The University doesn’t even guarantee tuition. The money is there. Period. The University has decided to spend it on merit, admin salaries, and programs (like Honors) that assist students who will already succeed without the services. The priority is just not on low-income students. 

      • Andy Howe

        No, I am not a fan of open admissions. 

        The point is simple…

        If the University is going to admit low-income students (which about 17% of its population is on Pell) then put resources in place to help these students graduate instead of cutting their financial aid and support programs. Indiana University, for example, provides its Pell students free tuition and room and board. The University doesn’t even guarantee tuition. The money is there. Period. The University has decided to spend it on merit, admin salaries, and programs (like Honors) that assist students who will already succeed without the services. The priority is just not on low-income students. 

        • Anonymous

          Isn’t that PRECISELY what McMaster said? Admit fewer, and do better by them?

          And, you say, “The University has decided to spend it on merit.” Right. Why have two systems (U and MnSCU) if the idea is not to have one be the flagship, research, meritocratic institution, and the other the widely distributed, maximized access institution?

          • Andy Howe

            Yes, McMaster did say that. The programs he is recommending have been in play for several years, so he is NOT providing any additional support — at least according to this report and the vision of enrollment document. 

            If both systems were equal in reputation and quality of academics and had equal resources, then I would be willing to entertain the argument. One system for the rich and another system for the poor historically hasn’t worked out all that great. 

          • Anonymous

            Well, continuing this interesting exchange, you are certainly right that the two systems differ in reputation and quality. And, that’s why the U costs a lot more than MnSCU (it’s just silly to say it’s administrator costs — please… — it’s FACULTY costs — the best faculty cost the most — kind of like auto mechanics — you know, I keep asking my mechanic to work for free, but, darn it, she just keeps declining — how unjust of her…)

            But, it sounds as though what you decry is the long historical correlation of academic success with family income. So long as most American K-12 school systems are funded by property tax dollars, and legislators are reluctant to engage in Robin Hood redistribution schemes to assist low-income regions with dollars from high-income regions, one doesn’t really see much chance of that changing.

            Isn’t it somewhat unrealistic to expect the U of M to fix that statewide (nationwide) problem by admitting some arbitrary percentage of underprepared students (and what makes 17% magic? why not 23? or 48?) and spending the money required to help each one recover from 18 years of societal neglect? Or, put cold-bloodedly, does the state in fact benefit more by providing an environment where its most academically gifted students (a la merit) are provided an environment to challenge them?

            Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for social justice, and happy to vote during elections for candidates who espouse such principles (I bleed lefty pink). But the whole point of a great educational system, at least from my vantage, is to have at least one place that lets the top of the top thrive. Wringing our hands and saying, “Well, that’s elitist” is like decrying that the Twins don’t let just anybody play for them. Gosh, if only _I_ could have afforded personal baseball coaches all those years, I bet _I_ could have been a great outfielder. It’s all so unfair!

            The U should admit the most gifted students. Period. Society should fix the ridiculous wealth gap that has grown since the Reagan years. Exclamation point. But the one should not depend on the other.

          • Andy Howe

            Don’t forget that the U is a land grant institution. The University has an obligation to broad access and social mobility. Although the pipeline is broken, there are institutional levers (see examples at  http://andyhowe.info/portfolio/lowincomeseriestwo.pdf ) that the University can use to help low-income students succeed. It appears the University would rather limit access through issues of affordability than do the needed institutional work and provide support to help low-income students (who are often transfer) succeed. I am sure that some colleges at the U are doing wonderful things for low-income and transfer students — no matter what is happening or not happening at the Central level. Fix the pipeline? I agree. Fix the institutional issues that cause students not to succeed? I agree. A final, “period.” 🙂

          • Andy Howe

            Don’t forget that the U is a land grant institution. The University has an obligation to broad access and social mobility. Although the pipeline is broken, there are institutional levers (see examples at  http://andyhowe.info/portfolio/lowincomeseriestwo.pdf ) that the University can use to help low-income students succeed. It appears the University would rather limit access through issues of affordability than do the needed institutional work and provide support to help low-income students (who are often transfer) succeed. I am sure that some colleges at the U are doing wonderful things for low-income and transfer students — no matter what is happening or not happening at the Central level. Fix the pipeline? I agree. Fix the institutional issues that cause students not to succeed? I agree. A final, “period.” 🙂

          • Anonymous

            Well, continuing this interesting exchange, you are certainly right that the two systems differ in reputation and quality. And, that’s why the U costs a lot more than MnSCU (it’s just silly to say it’s administrator costs — please… — it’s FACULTY costs — the best faculty cost the most — kind of like auto mechanics — you know, I keep asking my mechanic to work for free, but, darn it, she just keeps declining — how unjust of her…)

            But, it sounds as though what you decry is the long historical correlation of academic success with family income. So long as most American K-12 school systems are funded by property tax dollars, and legislators are reluctant to engage in Robin Hood redistribution schemes to assist low-income regions with dollars from high-income regions, one doesn’t really see much chance of that changing.

            Isn’t it somewhat unrealistic to expect the U of M to fix that statewide (nationwide) problem by admitting some arbitrary percentage of underprepared students (and what makes 17% magic? why not 23? or 48?) and spending the money required to help each one recover from 18 years of societal neglect? Or, put cold-bloodedly, does the state in fact benefit more by providing an environment where its most academically gifted students (a la merit) are provided an environment to challenge them?

            Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for social justice, and happy to vote during elections for candidates who espouse such principles (I bleed lefty pink). But the whole point of a great educational system, at least from my vantage, is to have at least one place that lets the top of the top thrive. Wringing our hands and saying, “Well, that’s elitist” is like decrying that the Twins don’t let just anybody play for them. Gosh, if only _I_ could have afforded personal baseball coaches all those years, I bet _I_ could have been a great outfielder. It’s all so unfair!

            The U should admit the most gifted students. Period. Society should fix the ridiculous wealth gap that has grown since the Reagan years. Exclamation point. But the one should not depend on the other.

          • Andy Howe

            Yes, McMaster did say that. The programs he is recommending have been in play for several years, so he is NOT providing any additional support — at least according to this report and the vision of enrollment document. 

            If both systems were equal in reputation and quality of academics and had equal resources, then I would be willing to entertain the argument. One system for the rich and another system for the poor historically hasn’t worked out all that great. 

        • Anonymous

          Isn’t that PRECISELY what McMaster said? Admit fewer, and do better by them?

          And, you say, “The University has decided to spend it on merit.” Right. Why have two systems (U and MnSCU) if the idea is not to have one be the flagship, research, meritocratic institution, and the other the widely distributed, maximized access institution?

    • Anonymous

      I am mystified by this post. So, if I carry your argument to the logical extreme, the U should randomly admit students (maybe by a lottery, since applications will outnumber slots) and then spend whatever it takes to try to bring the less academically qualified ones up to speed. SOOO egalitarian, but not necessarily a recipe for success, IMHO. Either one accepts that a state should have a flagship institution, and admission should be meritocratic, or I guess one does not.

      But, last time I checked, the (current) elected representatives of the state seemed pretty convinced that higher education is no longer a public priority, so our philosophical discussion is unlikely to amount to much… At least we can probably both agree that THAT is a sad state of affairs.

  • Andy Howe

    One can’t (or shouldn’t) look at access without looking at financial aid policies. McMaster has significantly shifted need-based aid to merit-aid to recruit the most highly qualified first-year students (most likely STEM) while decreasing need-based aid. This was a purposeful design to admit less low-income students (who often take more time to graduate) and use the money from need-based aid to recruit the wealthy (who often take less time to graduate). My hunch is that the group of students he will be “trimming off” will be low-income, which means more money for merit. 

    The programs he is recommending to improve the transfer experience have already been in place for several years, including the transfer coordinator (I know because I was the transfer coordinator at the U). Why even mention them only to present a half truth? There is nothing new there, so those programs will cost no extra money. 

    Instead of deeply supporting low-income and transfer students, McMaster has chosen to limit access and create the illusion that they are adding additional support. When he says, “admit for success,” he really is meaning that the University is not going to change it’s practices and increase support, so admit the most highly qualified (wealthy) students — all others can go to MNSCU.