Improvement by Degrees

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2015

What accounts for the dramatic turnaround in the U’s graduation rates?

By Erin Peterson


When a freshman arrived on campus at the University of Minnesota in 2000, the likelihood that he or she would don a cap and gown four years later was just 30 percent—the worst four-year graduation rate in the Big Ten. The six-year graduation rate for that same student was also last in the conference at 57 percent.

Fast forward to 2014, when 61 percent of students who began their college career at the U in 2010 graduated—nearly double the rate of a decade earlier. The six-year graduation rate for the same class is expected to see a similar increase, with the most recent six-year graduation rate at nearly 80 percent.

What happened to make such a significant difference?

Nothing less than a painstaking overhaul of admissions, student support, curriculum, financial aid, and campus culture, implemented in steps both large and small over a number of years, says Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education at the U.

When senior administrators, including four University presidents, saw that the U was still stuck at the bottom of the Big Ten around the turn of the millennium, the University undertook a far-reaching assessment of what changes had to be made to increase the likelihood of success for more students.

McMaster believes the changes add up to a fundamental transformation of undergraduate education at the U. “The goal we have is to create an undergraduate experience that’s second to none,” he says. “With this campus, and this city, I believe we can do that.”

How the U Turned Graduation Rates


• Increased recruiting, including focused work with high school counselors statewide and more national recruiting.

• Focused on statistics that matter. Grade point average, ACT scores, and high school rank, in combination, help identify students who are most likely to graduate in four years.

• Layered on reviews of other holistic factors such as leadership, extracurricular activities, and volunteerism to identify promising but under-the-radar applicants.

Result: Attracted more high-achieving students and more than doubled the applicant pool in a decade, from about 20,000 to more than 46,000 for the freshman class that entered in 2015.

Student Support

• Required all students to take a minimum of 13 credits unless an adviser approves fewer. Introduced “credit banding” in 2002: All full-time students pay for 13 credits. Every credit above 13 is free.

• Offered an online graduation planner for incoming freshmen that requires students to plot out all four years on campus. An additional online advising tool, APLUS, tracks grades and adviser notes to ensure students are making appropriate progress.

• Established a President’s Emerging Scholars program for students who are identified as “under-resourced” in the admissions process. The program helps about 500 students every year through specialized financial, academic, and peer assistance.

Results: Maintained access to the University of Minnesota.


• Added sections of prerequisite “bottleneck” courses—required classes that are difficult to get into because of enrollment demands.

• Instructed some departments to trim excessive credit requirements for a major.

• Required all departments to develop program maps that illustrate how students can progress and graduate in four years.

Result: Boosted course offerings and streamlined graduation requirements.

Financial Aid

• Built the U of M Promise Scholarship in 2007 to provide $30 million in aid ($19.5 million for the Twin Cities campus) for students from low- and middle-income families. • Boosted merit-based scholarships.

Results: Made education at the U financially attainable for more students.

Culture Shift

• Emphasized a four-year graduation mindset in Welcome Week orientation activities for first-year students—including tassels for all students with their four-year graduation year as a tangible reminder.

• Encouraged advisers to help students develop a four-year graduation path.

• Sent regular newsletters to undergraduates to underscore the importance of graduating on time.

Result: Created and reinforced the expectation of graduation in four years.

- Erin Peterson

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