University of Minnesota Rochester emerges as model for closing achievement gaps

The University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) is just 10 years old, but the institution is already drawing attention for its success closing achievement gaps for students of color, as well as first-generation and low-income students. According to The Hechinger Report, UMR—which serves around 500 undergraduates and is one of five campuses in the University of Minnesota system—enrolls students representative of the surrounding state. Thirty nine percent of UMR students receive Pell grants. The university is uniquely focused, offering just two bachelor’s degrees, health sciences and health professions, reflecting its proximity to the Mayo Clinic.

UMR has an average four-year graduation rate of 56 percent—both overall, and for students of color, those who receive Pell grants, and those who are the first in their family to attend college. In comparison, the national four-year graduation rate at public universities is 37 percent.

Prioritizing support for student learning

How was UMR able to emerge as a model for helping students from different backgrounds succeed? School officials cite the university’s focus on student engagement and its partnership with the Mayo Clinic, which offers research opportunities and hires many UMR graduates. Lori Carrell, the university’s chancellor, has made it her mission to ensure that “all of the goodies” available at top-tier universities “don’t just go to the honors students, don’t just go to liberal arts, small places with great endowments,” she told The Hechinger Report.

UMR has a relatively low 75:1 student-advisor ratio, keeping each student with the same coach all four years. The university’s “Just Ask” tutoring center, meanwhile, is staffed by faculty members, not students, and has locations in high-traffic areas, eliminating the formalities of traditional office hours. UMR students also benefit from “living learning communities,” which bring together students with similar interests or backgrounds to help them feel connected and supported.

The student-centered philosophy informs other university policies, too. In making tenure decisions, UMR priorities faculty who research the best ways to teach the health sciences. And to maximize limited resources, UMR opts not to have NCAA sports teams and leases space around the Rochester area for student housing and classrooms. School officials note, however, that the resulting layout has created some challenges when it comes to ensuring reliable access to food, given that the university has no dining hall.

A model for student success?

While some have questioned whether UMR’s model would work on a larger scale—or without a partner like the Mayo Clinic—the university plans to enroll more students in the coming years. It also is studying which of its interventions have the greatest impact on student outcomes.

UMR Chancellor Carrell, meanwhile, says the link between the university’s student engagement strategies and academic performance is clear. The results “should not be a shocker,” she told The Hechinger Report. “The shocker is why aren’t we all doing this?”

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