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U of M undergrads more elite as admissions become more strict

MINNEAPOLIS -- Soaring undergraduate interest in the University of Minnesota is raising the caliber of student admitted to -- and rejected by -- the state's flagship school.

University of Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS -- Soaring undergraduate interest in the University of Minnesota is raising the caliber of student admitted to - and rejected by - the state’s flagship school.

One of the easiest Big Ten schools to get into a decade ago, the U now turns down a higher percentage of applicants than all but Northwestern and Michigan.

Applications jumped by 250 percent from 2003 to 2013, causing the U’s acceptance rate to tumble to 44 percent from 76 percent, even as admissions steadily grew.

Those who do get in are arriving on campus better prepared than ever for the rigors of college. President Eric Kaler said the average freshman this fall will claim a record 28 on the ACT - a mark achieved by just 10 percent of U.S. test takers and 15 percent of Minnesotans. Ten years ago, the U’s ACT average was 25.

“What you are seeing are students with lots of options and higher academic performance choosing to come to the U, and I think that’s a good thing for the state of Minnesota,” Kaler said.


Alex Thompson, a junior from Hugo with a 32 on the ACT, said he picked the U over the University of Wisconsin and Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., because of a program that guaranteed his entry to the nursing program. He said he didn’t appreciate how selective the U had become until he applied.

“There certainly are people I knew in high school who applied and didn’t get in, and people who I thought were pretty smart,” Thompson said. “That definitely opened my eye to the level of competitiveness.”

Bob McMaster, the U’s vice president and dean of undergraduate education, said prospective students are responding to efforts by the school’s past four presidents to enhance the undergraduate experience. The campus is more attractive, he said, and there are more services for students. In addition, McMaster said, financial aid has grown, and tuition is reasonable.

“The reputation of this university at the undergraduate level has just accelerated over the last decade, and in particular over the last five years,” he said.

These trends have come at the expense of Minnesota students, to some degree, as U admissions staff has cast a wider net. Recruitment efforts have expanded in California, where tuition is high, and overseas.

In 2007, foreign students accounted for just 2 percent of U undergrads; that figure now is 9 percent.

Meanwhile, the percentage of U undergrads from Minnesota has declined for seven straight years, falling to 66 percent from 71 percent since 2007. Last fall, the number of in-state students dipped below 20,000 for the first time in years.

Tuition-reciprocal neighbors Wisconsin and the Dakotas have seen their share fall to 14 percent from 21 percent since 2007.


“We’re less of a regional university now,” McMaster said.

That trend is due, in part, to declining numbers of high school graduates in the Midwest. But attracting more students from other states and nations fits Kaler’s ambitions of making the U a more global institution, as well.

As state funding for higher education has waned, it doesn’t hurt that out-of-state students pay considerably more in tuition.

“We’d like to increase our out-of-state students modestly - not from a revenue point of view, per se, but obviously they do pay a higher tuition - but just from a diversity point of view,” Kaler said.

“Having people who grew up in New York City bring a different point of view than somebody who grew up in Hibbing. And putting those two young people in a dorm room together for a year will be interesting for both of them.”

State Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who chairs the Senate’s higher education committee, has concerns about enrolling too many international students whose visas don’t allow them to stay in the U.S. But she said a more selective flagship university generally is good for the state, no matter where the students come from.

“I think that when we bring people to Minnesota, we introduce them to what a great state we have, and they’re likely to stay,” she said.

Bonoff also said she wants to see the U enroll more low-income and minority students from Minnesota. And one way to do that, she suggested, is to be more open to admitting students who don’t meet the usual college-ready markers.


“Sometimes, if you’re just looking at test scores or some of those fixed measures, you might be missing some high-potential students of color,” Bonoff said.

Although officials acknowledge the Twin Cities campus is not as racially diverse as they would like, they have made progress on that front at the same time that the U’s academic standards have risen.

Minorities account for 19.6 percent of all undergraduates this year, up from 16.4 percent in fall 2004. Kaler told the Board of Regents recently that next fall’s freshman class includes more African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American students than last year.

Financial aid

As the U has sought to recruit and enroll more high-caliber students, it has boosted financial aid to seal the deal.

The total amount of gift aid handed out at the U - Pell and other grants and scholarships, which are not paid back - rose last year to $135 million from $73 million in 2004-05.

Nearly one-third of that gift money is awarded based on merit, as opposed to financial need, according to a review the U completed this year.

McMaster said he’s comfortable with the need-merit ratio. The U wants to make sure admitted students can afford to enroll, but it also wants to compete for top students.


“There’s a recognition that increasingly, as these students tend to get better and better coming to the University of Minnesota, we’re going to have to have a solid pot of merit-based aid,” he said.

In recent years, the U has turned to tuition waivers - totaling $9.6 million last year - which enable top out-of-state students to attend the U at in-state rates.

Rohan Deshmukh, a freshman from Carlsbad, Calif., is among the students taking advantage of the waiver. He said the U was one of several strong engineering schools his father recommended, but it wasn’t until the school sent its Southern California recruiter to his high school that he took a serious interest in going to college in Minnesota.

“I was the only one who went to that (meeting), so it was a good opportunity for me” to get to know the U, he said.

The tuition offer made Deshmukh’s decision easy.

Even some of what the U counts as need-based aid is not going to especially needy students. Eligibility for the U Promise scholarship, originally for low-income students only, was expanded five years ago to include families making up to $100,000 a year.

This year, the U handed out $6.6 million in U Promise funds to students from families making over $50,000 and $6.3 million to those making less.

“We saw increasing stress from middle-income families who were really struggling to get their kids here,” McMaster said.


In 2013, recipients of federal Pell grants for low-income students accounted for 22 percent of undergrads at the U, third-most in the Big Ten.

Robert Bruininks, U president from 2002 to 2011, made scholarships for low-income students a priority during his term. He said in a recent interview that the U’s increasingly high standards are good for the state, as long as the flagship continues to be accessible to needy students.

“If elite means high quality, I think we should take the risk,” he said. “If elite means we close the doors of opportunity based by income and other things, I don’t think that’s a fair trade.”

By the numbers


The average ACT score of this fall’s incoming freshmen, compared with 25 a decade ago


Percentage of U undergrads from Minnesota, compared with 71 percent in 2007



Percent of undergrads from Wisconsin and the Dakotas, down from 21 percent in 2007


Percentage of foreign undergrads, compared with 2 percent in 2007


Percentage of undergrads who are minorities, up from 16.4 percent in 2004

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service

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