The grades are in, decision time for higher ed
Across the state, parents and graduating high school seniors are now deciding which college it will be for the fall.
A new report card on higher education in Minnesota provides some much-needed information on what the state's public universities and colleges are doing well -- and what they can do better.
First, the good news. The state universities are doing a great job ensuring that all students graduate with certain fundamental skills and knowledge that employers look for. All require composition and science. Most, including Bemidji State University, also require college-level math. Even better, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus stands out for requiring solid coursework in a foreign language.
But students and parents take note: none of the 10 four-year schools we analyzed -- including Bemidji State University and even the University of Minnesota Twin Cities -- requires broad coursework in two areas essential to informed citizenship: American history/government and economics. Yes, students may take those subjects, but it's left entirely up to chance.
What else did we find? The universities receive a passing grade for retaining first-time full-time freshmen. While there is room for improvement, all had 69 percent or more of their freshmen return for a second year. And the state's two higher education governing bodies also get high marks for transparency of operations.
But not everything is rosy. At this pivotal time for Minnesota families and taxpayers, there are some real concerns on the horizon. On no campus surveyed do even half of students earn their degrees in four years. At BSU, nearly half of the incoming freshmen class still doesn't have a diploma after six years. Too many students, it appears, are racking up debt with no diploma to show for it.
Tuition and fees are also eating up an ever-increasing share of the average family's income -- 32 percent more than five years ago at Bemidji State University, even after accounting for inflation. In fact, tuition and fees increases have far outpaced inflation across the state, threatening access to higher education for many Minnesota families.
Parents and college-bound students aren't the only ones who should pay attention to the report card's findings. Legislators, who appropriate funding for the state's public universities and receive their pleas for continued subsidies, will find several areas ripe for reform.
A university's real business is education and expenditures should make sure that the classroom remains the priority. Unfortunately, as the report card shows, increases in administrative spending typically outpace increases in instructional spending. Non-instructional administrative spending is also swallowing up larger and larger chunks of university budgets. It should be noted that BSU is one of the few universities where this is not the case.
With a state budget deficit that is projected to grow to $5.8 billion by 2012, higher education leaders in Minnesota are understandably concerned about their bottom line. But if they wish to continue to receive generous public subsidies, our report concludes that they must focus on improving quality and controlling cost.
As Minnesotans prepare to send their kids to college, we hope they will consult our report card to see what is in store. And as university leaders and policymakers spend their tax dollars, we urgently hope they will look for ways to give families a better educational bang for their buck.
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Annette Meeks is CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. The two organizations just published "At a Crossroads: A Report Card on Public Higher Education in Minnesota," available at www.goacta.org.