Flagship for whom? As the Twin Cities campus has grown more selective, Greater Minnesota student population has declined

By Michelle Griffith, Bella Dally-Steele, Michael Achterling, Dylan Woolfolk and Katie Gans

Ada-Borup High, a school in Minnesota’s northwestern Norman County, hasn’t sent a student to the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities since 2016.

Neither has any of the three high schools in the area spanning over 850 square miles, which puts the county in the company of a growing number of others from rural Minnesota that have sent fewer students to the Twin Cities campus over the past decade and a half.

“We have tons of schools come out and speak with students every year. I can’t remember the last time the Twin Cities campus came here,” said Kelly Anderson, the principal of the school in Ada, Minnesota, population 1,707. “I think students might go if they did, but students aren’t going to go to some place they aren’t familiar with.”

Students in these schools may not choose the Twin Cities campus anyway because Moorhead or Crookston are closer options, Anderson said. Same with students in Clearwater, Lake of The Woods, and Mahnomen counties, with all of them sending fewer than two students total per county over the past five years.

Yet the schools reflect a broader picture involving Greater Minnesota undergraduate students and the state’s flagship research university: Fewer outstate students are coming to the Twin Cities campus as freshmen than 15 years ago in relation to the total undergraduate population, according to enrollment data provided by the University of Minnesota’s Office of Undergraduate Education.

Since 2003, Greater Minnesota undergraduate students on campus have dropped from 18.4 percent of the university’s undergraduate population that year to 14.2 percent in 2018, according to the enrollment data. Metro-area students stayed essentially stable, moving from 53.6 percent to 51.9 percent during those years.

Meanwhile, international and out-of-state students both grew significantly in their portion of the total undergraduate population. During the same time period, international student enrollment went from 2.1 percent to 8.7 percent, and the portion of out-of-state students rose from 4.5 percent to 11.5 percent.

The decline in the portion of Greater Minnesota undergraduates has drawn concern from state legislators and the university administration for the past five years, prompting special scholarship programs and recruitment efforts to bring those numbers back up. But the realities of tighter admissions standards and rising tuition continue to make it difficult for outstate students to come to the Twin Cities campus.

The result, some say, is predictable and largely inevitable—with consequences that play out not only across the state but on the Twin Cities campus itself: The state’s flagship research university is less able to fulfill its land-grant mission and is increasingly elitist and out of touch with many areas of the state beyond the urban core.

“In the 21st century, [University of Minnesota] became selective place, and that was the dream of a lot of the administrators,” said Minnesota History Magazine editor Laura Weber who worked with the university as a communications manager from 2000 until 2006. “I guess they got it.”

Tuition matters

The disproportionate drop in Greater Minnesota undergraduate students attending the university has many driving factors, none of which have clear solutions, said Robert McMaster, the university’s vice provost of undergraduate student education.

Most notably, he said, the university’s climbing tuition might have excluded students who are not able to keep up with the growing price. Since 2003, tuition at the Twin Cities campus has nearly doubled.

McMaster also points to the decline of the overall Greater Minnesota population, as residents have moved closer to the seven-county metro area, intensifying the difficulty of maintaining stable recruitment numbers. Indeed, according to data from the Minnesota Demographic Center, from 2000 to 2015, entirely urban counties accounted for about 80 percent of the state’s overall population growth while completely rural counties consistently lost population each year during that time.

But other realities factor too, McMaster said. For one, talented Greater Minnesota students are also drawn to other universities with a competitive edge, like the state universities in North Dakota and South Dakota, which consistently undercut the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities with cheaper tuition.

Culturally, these schools and colleges in small Minnesota towns are more attractive to students because they’re closer to home and less intimidating than a large metropolitan area, McMaster said.

University of Minnesota’s satellite campuses in Morris and Crookston are drawing more students from Greater Minnesota than the Twin Cities campus: As of fall of 2018, nearly 60 percent of students at the Crookston campus were from Greater Minnesota. At Morris, 46 percent of students are from Greater Minnesota, and roughly 20 percent of students are Native American.

In many cases, competitive universities in neighboring states are actively recruiting top Minnesota students, often succeeding with those who live in close proximity in areas of Greater Minnesota.

During a March 2019 University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting discussing university enrollment plans, McMaster told the board the university is experiencing a “problematic and somewhat stunning outflow” of Minnesota high school graduates entering neighboring state institutions. In fall 2016, the university lost 7,443 potential Minnesota college freshman students to neighboring state schools while only taking in a combined 2,610 from those neighboring states—a ratio of 2.85 Minnesota students lost for every neighboring state student who enters a Minnesota college.

Land grant versus R1

Complicating the situation, many agree, is the dual mission of the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. The campus is the state’s only combined land-grant and highly accredited research institution. On the one hand, it must maintain high academic standards grounded in teaching and research excellence, drawing in the best and brightest students from wherever it can. On the other hand, as a land-grant university, its mission is to serve the state’s economic needs by expanding higher education “beyond the privileged few, educating many people to be productive citizens and members of the workforce.”

Upholding the university’s land-grant mission while balancing its other interests as the state’s only top-level research university, known as R1, is a “Catch-22,” Associate Vice President for Public Engagement Andrew Furco said.

Much of this boils down to funding, Furco said. In fiscal year 2000, state support accounted for 33 percent of the university’s revenues, but that portion declined to 17 percent by fiscal year 2017, according to the university’s Budget Office.

Over that same time, as a result, tuition and grant funding became increasingly important sources of revenue, Furco said.

“What gets prioritized is what’s funded,” Furco said. “Do we keep thinking about serving the state when the state is not necessarily the majority of what the budget’s about?”

The university’s mission is also influenced by its overall rankings, which in turn are influenced by metrics that include research profile for an R1 institution. If the university’s focus is on recruiting high-profile researchers to work at the university, leading to more research dollars, all that may improve the rankings. But the consequences are that admission standards become more rigorous and the land-grant mission becomes a lower priority, he said.

Indeed, the Twin Cities campus has raised the bar for incoming students considerably during the past 15 years. The average ACT score of incoming first-year students has increased from an average of a score of 24.8 to 28 since 2003. In 2015, the university started requiring applicants to have completed four years of high school math to be eligible, according to the university’s Office of Admissions.

Prior to 2005, students also had additional access points, including the General College, which was able to admit students on a more holistic basis, considering essays and letters of recommendation in addition to high school ranking and standardized test scores.

But the General College was disbanded that year. And while that may not have impacted students from Greater Minnesota as much as from other marginalized communities, it was a measure of the university’s decision to become an elite institution, said Minnesota History Magazine’s Weber, who was communication director for the General College. Since then, university retention and graduation rates have risen rapidly, as have other indicators of eliteness like average ACT score.

McMaster doesn’t apologize for the university’s high standards: If Minnesota doesn’t have an in-state institution with the highest academic standards, the university will lose the best students in the state, he said.

“These are students that if they don’t have an excellent R1 public university, they’re going to go to Wisconsin, or they’re going to go to Michigan or they’re going to go to Berkeley,” McMaster said. “We want our best Minnesota high school students … to think about this as a destination where the very best students want to come.”

Old concerns, failed solutions

Yet Greater Minnesota student enrollment has been a concern for some time.

Regent Michael Hsu, who is known to be a strong advocate for students, said the university has been criticized by legislators in the past because their constituents are not getting accepted into the school of their choice.

At a July 2018 Board meeting, Hsu said he believes the university has space to increase enrollment and pointed to the ACT score requirement as a reason more students are not admitted, according to the meeting’s minutes.

In 2014, after Minnesota legislators criticized the university for those falling Greater Minnesota student numbers, the administration made a concerted effort to recruit more Greater Minnesota students.

Robert McMaster, the University of Minnesota’s vice provost of undergraduate student education.

Increased outreach reversed the trend by a few hundred students, but the program was cut soon after because the results weren’t significant enough, McMaster said.

Keeping Greater Minnesota student numbers stable, McMaster acknowledged, is like “swimming upstream,” so the university has returned to normal recruitment of Greater Minnesota students.

Executive Director of Admissions Heidi Meyer is responsible for recruitment of students to the Twin Cities campus. She said she doesn’t see any conflict between the goals of a research university and one that can accommodate bright students from every county in the state.

“It’s really important for students from Greater Minnesota to come to the Twin Cities campus because we’re a research institution,” Meyer said. “We believe that we have solid academic programming and we believe we’re an accessible campus for all students.”

Meyer said the university applies a “holistic approach” to admission decisions for all students. That approach considers GPA and high school curriculum as primary factors along with ACT scores, and then look at secondary factors such as race, family income and hometown.

The university has a strategy for reaching students from all over the state, she says: Every Minnesota high school, even the smallest one in the state, has a university adviser assigned to the school teaching the students about the university’s Twin Cities campus and overseeing recruitment efforts at the school. While she says it’s impossible for the university to visit every high school each year, the admissions office makes sure every school is served either through direct visits, high school counselor update meetings, college education fairs, online events, texting, email outreach, mailings and other communication outreach efforts.

“We’re looking for academically prepared students who will thrive here in this campus environment, so it’s not any different than the students that we’re looking at from the Twin Cities metro area or even from a national perspective,” she said.

A disconnect in the counties

Even so, that strategy still appears to bypass some Greater Minnesota schools.

Fairmont High School, located approximately a two and a half hour drive away from the Twin Cities campus, has not had anyone from the Twin Cities campus visit the school in the nearly 30 years administrative counseling assistant Mary Granheim has worked there, Granheim said.

Granheim, contacted by phone, said the school receives little communication, even mail, from the Twin Cities campus. Yet last year, the high school sent two students to the university’s Twin Cities campus, and one of them was a guidance counselor’s son. This year the high school has also sent two students to the university, she said.

Principals of Ada-Borup and Falls High, Kelly Anderson and Timothy Everson say neither of their schools has sent a student to the university in years. They point to the university’s disconnect from the schools as a major factor students choose to go elsewhere.

“The U misses an opportunity every year they’re not here,” Everson said. “Sometimes, all it takes is a brief introduction to spark a student’s interest in a university. A lot of our graduates end up going to UND [University of North Dakota] or NDSU [North Dakota State University], and those schools send admission recruits every year.”

Meyer, when contacted for a response, did not refer to these specific schools but spoke broadly of the university’s efforts to use every available means to reach Greater Minnesota students.

“While we aren’t resourced to visit every school in Minnesota, we work to effectively reach as many students and schools as we can,” she said in an email.

And sometimes even regular outreach isn’t enough to spark interest.

Bagley High in Clearwater hasn’t sent any students to the university since 2014, despite hosting Twin Cities admission recruits every year. Guidance counselor Jenny Fraley said there’s not much more the Twin Cities campus can do.

“The admissions office at the U sends recruits a couple days a year and, given how protective teachers are of their time, I think they do a good job with the time they’re given,” she said. “Only about a third of our graduating class, which is roughly 20 students, goes onto a four-year university, and the universities they choose tend to be close to home.”

In these cases, the Twin Cities campus competes with post-graduation options like trade school. Kittson County schools, for example, encourage students to attend community college and trade school, rather than a four-year college, said Bob Jaszczak, superintendent of Kittson County Central School District.

“There are many reasons why you’d want to choose something else over a four-year institution. Once you’re finished with a two-year program, you’re pretty much guaranteed a job and you don’t have the debt associated with going to a four-year university,” he said.

Lawmakers respond

While some Greater Minnesota counties’ student enrollment numbers have continued to decline at the university in recent years, their lawmakers are unsure how to proceed, or if this decline represents a problem at all.

Serving students from all over the state is an important aspect of the university’s work and maintaining that service should be prioritized, Sen. Paul T. Anderson, R-Plymouth and chair of the Minnesota Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee said in an emailed statement.

“If changes to admissions standards or campus environment is a deterrent … for students from Greater Minnesota to attend the Twin Cities campus, I would certainly support the University of Minnesota evaluating how their policies could be affecting prospective students,” Anderson said.

Cook County, a Greater Minnesota county in the northeast corner of the state that includes Grand Marais and Lutsen, has only enrolled 20 university freshmen since 2003 and no new freshmen in the past four years.

“I think that the main university probably doesn’t travel to Greater Minnesota to a place like Cook County because if you had to travel from Minneapolis or St. Paul to Grand Marais it’s about a six-hour drive,” said Rep. Rob Ecklund, R-International Falls, who represents District 3A, the largest geographic state legislative district in Minnesota. “So, I would imagine that the university doesn’t put any focus on that type of active recruitment.”

Ecklund also said because the university is a land-grant college it should be trying to pull students from across every corner of the state. He said he was unaware of the enrollment issue and would begin to bring it up with his constituents.

He said he doesn’t think politics are the main reason for the low enrollment numbers because Cook County is one of the more liberal counties in the entire state, but does think the “small-town feel” of Greater Minnesota contrasts a lot with the urban environment of the university’s Twin Cities campus.

“It’s the same thing throughout Minnesota,” Ecklund said. “The greater population is in the seven-, or nine-, or 11-county metro area, or whatever you want to call it now…and both groups, the urban area and the Greater Minnesota area, both look at each other with distrust. So, if you want to figure out how to fix that, let me know because I’d love to fix it at the Legislature too.”

Additionally, Mahnomen County, located in the northwest portion of the state, has only enrolled two freshmen into the university since 2016 and 11 total enrolled freshmen since 2003.

“I think that every county is different,” said Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, who represents portions of Mahnomen, Clearwater and Becker Counties. “UND, NDSU, and sometimes Concordia, they’re just closer. They’re closer to home, and it’s a different lifestyle for the people that don’t want to come to the cities.”

Looking ahead

One way the university has encouraged Greater Minnesota students to attend the Twin Cities campus is by creating the Land Grant Legacy scholarship program. This provides Greater Minnesota Students in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Sciences a $20,000 scholarship over four years.

This year, the scholarship program aimed to award 100 scholarships to new students. McMaster said he thinks it is realistic to spread this scholarship program to colleges beyond the CFANS, since Greater Minnesota students do not solely attend that college.

In the end, McMaster said, it’s important for students to know the university is more than just the Twin Cities campus.

For students who aren’t admitted to the Twin Cities campus, the solution lies in making use of the entire university system, where students are referred and admitted to other system campuses around the state, he said.

“You don’t need to come to the Twin Cities because you’re getting a University of Minnesota degree,” McMaster said. “The diploma you get from any of our campuses is identical.”

But that’s not always the way students see it. Harley Braun, who came to the Twin Cities campus from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, population 3,404, plans to receive her diploma in agricultural education after spending the majority of her classes on the university’s St. Paul campus among what she called a “healthy mix of rural and urban students.”

The Twin Cities was an important choice for her, she said, and by all accounts, she is just the kind of Greater Minnesota student the university wants: she has a 3.8 GPA and is on the school’s Soil Judging Team, a member of the Agricultural Education Club and the Agricultural Education Mentor Program.

But, she said she knows she is here because she sought the university herself, not because the university came looking for students like her.

“My high school trains people to stay in Sleepy Eye,” she said. “There are a lot of low-income people in my hometown, and they all view the U as this big, intimidating, expensive place that’s impossible to get in to. They don’t know any better because the U doesn’t do anything to provide or communicate the opportunities they have for towns like mine.”

Karim Nabhan contributed to this story.