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Regents’ ACT-score plan will only serve to expand inequality

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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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 05/02/2016 - 09:46 am.

    Thank you!!

    Robert, thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking about for some time. Your paragraph on ACT scores and testing was dead on. I couldn’t agree more.

    I was a 17 year old farm kid from Aitkin when I started as a Freshman at the U in 1965. My ACT score was 22 and my study skills were woefully inadequate. My dorm room was on the fourth floor of Frontier Hall where I became friends with many other students from all over the country. Two African-Americans I became friends with were Ezell Jones (Memphis, Tennessee) and Harold Boudreaux (St. Paul). Both were outstanding football players for the Gophers. Some of the Gopher players I knew were enrolled in General College.

    I struggled for about a year until I found Studio Art. I took my first drawing class and was hooked. I had superb instructors like Peter Busa, Herman Rowan, Katherine Nash, Warren MacKensie, Curt Hoard, and others. Because of these great instructors (and artists themselves) I was well prepared to teach elementary and secondary art in northern Wisconsin after I graduated from college.

    I eventually returned to Minnesota, worked in Community Education for 30 years, went into central administration, and was assistant Superintendent and then became Superintendent for Anoka-Hennepin the state’s largest school district – with 38,000 students, 6000 staff, and an annual budget of half a billion dollars.

    I give you that background because I am a living example of what you are saying. If I was a graduating high school senior today I would not be allowed to go to the U and would not be offered an outstanding liberal arts education. Not only for myself, but my friends Ezell and Harold would not be there either.

    So in 2016 the UofM is now a “research-based” university and only serves the best and brightest – they think. General College is a thing of the past (and so are good competitive football teams by the way). Average kids like me will not be given any opportunity to even attend the U. Athletes of color like Ezell and Harold will not be allowed in either.

    For a great state like Minnesota – and a land grant institution like the University – to serve only the “best and brightest” (as determined by one test taken by 17 year old kids) I find unconscionable. Robert, thanks for writing the article I should have done some time ago.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 05/02/2016 - 10:34 am.

    Comparative Data

    From Minnesota Office of Higher Education:

    For those who may wish to review broader MN scores including U of M, State Universities and Private Colleges.

    I believe the author’s view should also be evaluated with valid references here.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/02/2016 - 02:05 pm.

    We should always be aware of what factors prevent Minnesota high school graduates from attending our state’s premier public university, and this article points out how demanding of all applicants a higher ACT score may discourage some.

    But context is important, too. When Borlaug attended the U of MN Twin Cities campus in the 1930s, the state legislature strongly funded the U with tax dollars. That was also true when I started teaching at the U in 1965. But in the next 40 years I saw with dismay how other demands on the state’s dollars reduced, again and again and again, the public dollars that went to funding the U’s functions. In my experience there (to 2005), state funding subsidized students with more than 34% of the U’s total costs (tuition and grants formed the other two-thirds). By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, state funding represented only 18% of what the U costs.

    The Legislature’s refusal to continue traditional funding the U of MN finally caused all colleges on the Twin Cities campus to start raising tuition costs for students, with students in low-cost colleges like Liberal Arts subsidizing their peers in other colleges where faculty salaries are immensely greater (Carlson School, CBS, science and engineering, etc.). Faculty positions in the liberal arts have been slashed in the past twenty years and full-time tenured faculty in some areas are now greatly outnumbered by temporary adjuncts. No one on the U’s faculty or in the bloated administration, even in the Medical School, earns what intercollegiate athletic directors and coaches do.

    Those who would attend General College, which was abolished, can attend a local campus of the state colleges and universities system (which did not exist as such in the 1930s when Borlaug went to the U).

    But the quality of the U’s student body has improved overall, because of higher demands made upon applicants, who must compete for admission. No longer can any Minnesota high school graduate get into the U of MN just by submitting an application. Students as a group are more serious, and better prepared. This is a good thing; other students have options to attend a MSCU school, so they are not denied an education.

    Many of our public high schools, in that time, have decreased in quality. So a good GPA from high school has become less helpful in distinguishing good students from those who aren’t going to make it. Something like demanding high ACT scores is necessary.

    • Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 05/02/2016 - 07:33 pm.

      Some caution

      I would encourage some caution about saying our public high schools “have decreased in quality.” The same under funding phenomenon that occurs in higher ed occurs in PreK -12 as well. The mandated special education program is chronically underfunded while identification of special education students has risen. In the state’s largest school district it was $28 million short annually (from the state and the feds). The counselor to student ratio is something like 1:700 – not nearly what is needed in the area of academic support, career counseling, or mental health support.

      Also, in the three decades I was in the district, student poverty and students of color doubled each decade. All of that is occurring while basic school budgets are not funded with with any inflationary adjustment. So, the same government (state and federal) that issues mandated special education services, common core curriculum, nutritional standards, transportation, etc. ensures that school districts cut budgets every year because no annual inflationary adjustments are automatically given. Also, unlike colleges, we cannot charge fees for our classes and increase them to make budget.

      Public schools do have the ability to go to their citizens and ask for money in local referendums but the success of those largely depends on your zip code. Those with high property wealth generally pass and those in property poor districts really struggle to get voter support because of the high impact on their property taxes.

      Given all of those challenges, I believe that our public high schools are doing a decent job of supplying 2 & 4 year colleges with academically prepared students. I would also argue that a high school GPA is still the best predictor of college success. In our research of successful 4 year college graduates that is what we have found.

      I also still think adding back General College is a good strategy to improve our Gopher athletic teams!

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/02/2016 - 08:49 pm.

    Correlation and causation

    Higher ACT score may correlate with higher income in the family but it does not mean that money buys higher ACT score; most likely it means that education is more valued in those families and kids are pushed more to work harder. And of course colleges are interested in those students who will do well in college which exactly what ACT measures. What is the reason to admit kids who would fail?

    Where the author is absolutely correct is in evaluation of bloated administration personnel. Instead of hiring better and more professors, colleges hire more clerks (well paid but still managing clerks). But they need to do it to staff all diversity offices and sports facilities…

    Mr. Carlson, can you remind me how many students have to take remediation courses in colleges?

  5. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 05/03/2016 - 06:28 am.

    Remediation at the University of Minnesota has been stable for years and runs at about 2% according to the MN Office of Higher Education. There is no question that higher ACT scores required for entrance help keep that low.

    My point in all of this is that if we are going to have a skilled workforce in the future we are going to have to learn how to educate students in poverty and students of color. Both are rising dramatically.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/03/2016 - 09:17 pm.

      According to this article, 50% of two-year college and 20% of four year college students need remediation. Does it mean that schools fail their students or does it mean that many students who go to college shouldn’t? College education is really not necessary for many students who go there and for the society in general.

      But I agree with you that we have to learn how to educate “students in poverty and students of color.” The only thing is that I do not believe that we can do it by pouring more money in education. Those students are the only ones who can actually help themselves and they should be given incentives for doing that but should face all the negative consequences if they don’t. So, going back to the article, reducing the ACT requirements is not the answer.

      • Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 05/04/2016 - 11:39 pm.

        University policy

        Since is it is an article on the U of M I thought you wanted U data – remediation is 2%. There is certainly some truth in the fact that not all students are ready for college and that a 4 year college is not for all students. However, if we are to double the number of students getting a 2 year degree (this is where work force skills are needed) along with a marketable skill we are going to have to improve both high school and college results.

        There is no evidence that we are “pouring money into education” since we haven’t kept up with inflation for years. If you don’t believe all day Kindergarten or preschool is worth the investment we will disagree again.

        Both high schools and college need to improve their results – look at the grad rates for college – many students are thousands of dollars in debt and still don’t have a degree. Colleges need to do a better job of supporting those students so they can receive the value of their education. And, Yes, it will take more money and it should be set at an annual inflationary level.

        The so called surplus we have this year is not really a surplus if you don’t forcast known inflationary costs. For schools, do you not expect to honor current teacher contracts? Do you expect them not to get raises? And do you expect to attract new high quality teachers to the profession if it is chronically underfunded?

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/04/2016 - 10:58 am.

    I’m with Mr. Carlson: money certainly does buy quality. In education or in buying retail, you’re going to pay more at Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue than you do at J. C. Penny or Walmart, but you’re going to get much better goods. You get what you pay for.

    We can’t keep underfunding pre-K-12 public school systems–the special ed underfunded mandate is scandalous all by itself–and expect children of impoverished parents to manage educational hurdles all alone.

    And if we want great faculty we have to pay great salaries, whether with state [public] funding or higher tuition.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/04/2016 - 08:47 pm.

      Not always

      If more expensive product is always better than less expensive product, does it mean that brand names are always better than non-brand names even though they are often made in the same place? Does it mean that it is always better to buy an Audi even if Chevy will still take you from point A to point B and you don’t have money for an Audi? Sometimes spending money is wasteful and doesn’t bring any benefits…

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