At the University of Minnesota’s most recent Board of Regents meeting an undergraduate enrollment plan was approved that will ensure that the university will act as an engine to expand income inequality. The provisions of this plan will make it less likely that a student from a lower-income family will be attending the university. In today’s economy, access to a decent-paying job is more and more contingent on having a college degree. The Regents’ decision to restrict access to this opportunity based on family income needs to be justified.
Besides including provisions that will make unaffordable levels of tuition even more so, the major aspect of the enrollment plan that will act as a barrier for lower-income students relates to ACT test scores.
The U of M is establishing a target average ACT score of 28 for incoming freshman (the average for Minnesota high school students is 22.7). ACT tests do not measure intelligence or knowledge. They are meant to predict how well a student will do in college. However, studies have shown that these standardized tests are seriously flawed as predictors of college success [PDF]. High school grades are much better indicators of a student’s performance in college. On the other hand, ACT scores have been found to be closely correlated with a student’s family household income [PDF]. So raising ACT scores at the university can only practically be accomplished by decreasing the number of lower-income students admitted.
Impact is clear
We do not have to wait to confirm the impact of this policy. The university has already been implementing it. Ten years ago the average ACT score for incoming freshmen was 25.1, and 18 percent had scores of 22 or less. In 2014 the mean score was 27.9, and only 4 percent of freshmen had scores of 22 or less.
Enrollment trends at the university reflect the expected decline in the number of students from lower-income households. In 2012 there were 5,307 undergraduates from households with incomes of under $30,000 attending the Twin Cities campus. By 2014 this number had been reduced to 4,580.
We can only speculate on the reasons behind the university’s “war on poverty.” Increasing ACT scores has not worked as a means of improving the university’s ranking compared to other colleges. Its U.S. News & World Report ranking fell from 60 in 2004 to 69 in 2015, despite the rise in scores.
It may be that administrators are not really interested in ACT scores at all. Perhaps what they are really pursuing are students from more affluent families, and it just happens that these are correlated with students with higher ACT scores [PDF]. A Minnesota student from a lower income family receiving university-funded need-based aid will only add $9,800 to the university’s annual tuition revenue stream. Each upper-income Minnesotan can contribute up to $4,000 more. And an out-of-state student can bring in over $22,000.
Growth in expenditures
Operating expenditures at the university have gone from $2.2 billion in 2005 to $3.5 billion today. In 2012 a Wall Street Journal article reported that the number of administrators at the university had increased by over 1,000 in the previous 10 years. Since then, from 2012 to 2014, the university has increased the number of administrators making over $150,000 by 20 percent. Clearly, in order to pay for this growth the university must scramble for every revenue dollar it can get.
Contrary to the foregoing, the true significance of the university’s enrollment policy cannot be measured in numbers, but only by its effect on individuals.
Some 80 years ago during the Great Depression an Iowa boy from a poor farm family was accepted at the University of Minnesota. He didn’t have very good test scores, but the university was not as “metric conscious” back then, or perhaps it had different values. Tuition was low enough that by working several jobs he was able to put himself through school. He got his degree and then went on for a doctorate in plant pathology. His name was Norman Borlaug. He became the father of the Green Revolution, which may have saved as many as a billion lives. Were a modern-day Norman or Norma to show up on campus today, they would be quietly turned away.
The Board of Regents envisions a university that is more and more exclusive. But before pursuing this vision, its members should be clear about whom they are excluding and why.
Robert Katz is an employee of the University of Minnesota libraries.
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