Campuses not meeting spending, grad expectations

Horn (Courtesy of MHEC)

Minnesota's universities are not graduating as many students as they should -- and are spending a higher-than-average amount of money to educate them, according to a draft report by the Midwestern Higher Education Compact in Minneapolis.

In contrast, the report says, the state’s community and technical colleges are performing about as well as their national peers in those areas.

The report singles out Mesabi Range Community and Technical College, the University of Minnesota-Morris, and Northwestern College for having the highest marks.

But compact analyst Aaron Horn told Midwestern higher-education officials at a meeting early this month that the state’s four-year institutions, on average, are not proving themselves very effective.

"Students,” he told them, “are graduating at rates lower than what we'd expect given the types of institutions that we have, the types of students that we serve -- especially their level of academic preparedness -- and the geographical context of the institutions, such as whether they are urban or rural.”

Horn also told the officials Minnesota four-year campuses, on average, “are spending more than what we'd expect given the types of degrees that they produce, the disciplines of those degrees, the faculty attributes -- proportion of full-time / part-time faculty -- and the cost of living."

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The report comes a time when the public is scrutinizing campus’ spending and their ability to graduate students. The desire for more accountability has spawned reports that track such things.

But Horn says relying on raw graduation rates and cost-per-degree calculations – a common practice in many studies -- may be unfair, because they lead to comparisons of otherwise dissimilar campuses.

Instead, Horn said, he tried to evaluate colleges while accounting for a wide array of differences among them, such as student demographics, the size of institution and degrees offered, admissions selectivity – even the cost of living where a school is located.

The report rated 1,500 four-year campuses and 900 two-year colleges in all 50 states.

The study calculated what a college’s expected graduation rate would be given its characteristics, and then compared it with its actual graduation rate. It also compared its expected education-related costs and compares them with how much the school actually spent.

Institutions received a rating for how effective they have been in graduating students. They also received a rating on how high expenditures have been. Ratings for both range on a 5-point scale from “very low” to “very high.”

A college that has an effectiveness rating of “very high”, for example, has a graduation rate that is much higher than one would expect given its characteristics.

A college that has an expenditures rating of “very low” has education-related expenditures that are much lower than one would expect given its attributes.

States received overall effectiveness and expenditure ratings as well for their two-year and four-year college sectors.

Minnesota joined Alaska, Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia in having the greatest disparity between high spending and lower-than-expected graduation rates among its four-year colleges.

The states with the most efficient and effective four-year colleges were Arizona, Maryland and Virginia.

North Dakota was the only state to get high marks for having lower-than-expected costs and high effectiveness in the two-year college sector.

Among the worst-performing states in that area were Kansas, Nevada and Rhode Island.

The report singles out Mesabi Range Community and Technical College as being the most effective of Minnesota’s two-year colleges, and said it is “moderately efficient.”

The University of Minnesota-Morris is the most effective of the public four-year institutions, the report states, adding that it’s also “quite efficient.”

Northwestern College is the most effective private four-year institution, but it has higher-than-expected expenditures, the report says.

The state’s flagship university, the University of Minnesota, had adequate graduation rates but above-average education-related expenses, the report states.

U spokeswoman Julie Christensen wrote in an emailed statement, “University of Minnesota undergraduates gain significantly from being part of a research university. Many are able to work side by side with world-class faculty on cutting edge research. That does not show up in a cost analysis. The U has and does benchmark itself against peer institutions, and its expenditures are not unusual in that group.”

Horn said the report does have some limitations.

Federal data is not always consistent or complete, he said, and lack of data meant he could not account for the academic preparedness of the students entering two-year colleges – a key factor in their success.

Horn also cautioned that having high expenditures does not necessarily mean that a campus is inefficient.

“Institutions could conceivably be investing in educational quality,” he said. High-caliber, high-cost faculty and programs might enrich student learning, he said, but “do not necessarily influence graduation rates.”

Horn said higher-education officials should not rely solely on the data, but should use it in conjunction with other assessments.

The final report is expected to come out later this summer.