How the U is framing the transfer access-collaboration issue

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.