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ND University System may tweak once-sought tougher admissions standards

Several changes could be in store for the North Dakota University System’s Pathways to Student Success plan, the signature piece of former Chancellor Hamid Shirvani’s 11-month tenure.

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The State Board of Higher Education charged then-Chancellor Shirvani with devising a plan to elevate higher education outcomes by raising student admission standards.

“The board for quite some time had a vision of bringing North Dakota to that next level, yet keeping it as a unified system,” said Kirsten Diederich, president of the higher education board.

They wanted to ensure students were going to the right institutions to be successful, she said.

Shirvani brought them the Pathways to Student Success plan, which called for clearly defining the role of each state institution and beefing up admissions requirements at some.

Set to begin by fall 2015, the plan divides the state’s 11 schools into three tiers — community colleges, regional campuses and research universities.

At its core is an admissions index that will determine entrance requirements at state schools.

During the next few months, the interim chancellor is tweaking the plan’s admissions index cutoff scores, measures of student success, tuition model and maybe even its name.

“I’ve said, this plan is at a 50,000-foot level,” said interim Chancellor Larry Skogen. “As we get down to where the grass and the trees are at, there are things we need to re-look at within the plan.”

Changing the formula

A key change could be in store for the plan’s admissions eligibility index.

The index formula gives an applicant points for ACT score, high school grade-point average, core courses and residency status.

The weighted formula looks like this:

(ACT x3) + (GPA x20) + (Core x5) + 10 (if resident)

The maximum score for a North Dakota resident is 273.

Earlier this year, the board approved eligibility scores for each tier of institution.

A score of 210 would be required to attend a research university, 190 for Minot State (the only regional master’s university) and 180 for regional universities. Open-enrollment community colleges have no minimum score requirements.

Analyzing the incoming 2013 class at each of the institutions revealed many students would not have been admitted to their schools under the Pathways plan.

At North Dakota State University, more than 1,000 students, or 41 percent, would not meet the academic eligibility score of 210. More than 860 students, or 46 percent, enrolled at the University of North Dakota also wouldn’t make the cut.

Facing those numbers, Skogen said it’s important the admissions index is driven by data.

“Some of the data does not seem to support cutoffs where they are,” Skogen said. “We’ve got to put them in the right spot.”

Skogen highlighted examples of students who enrolled in 2006 who would not meet admissions standards under the Pathways plan, but graduated in six years, graduated elsewhere, were still enrolled at the institution or still enrolled at another institution.

“Even successful students would be left out if the cutoff scores were left where they’re at,” Skogen said.

“If a student can come into one of our institutions and graduate, who am I to say that they should have never been admitted to that institution?”

He said they’re looking at making changes to the cutoff scores by first defining what a successful student at each of the institutions looks like. He said they might also change how items are weighted in the formula based on feedback from educators.

At a recent meeting of the state higher ed board, member Duaine Espegard was critical of adjusting the cutoff scores. He said the aim of Pathways was to raise the bar at North Dakota colleges, but changing the cutoff scores would “move the bar down so it fits.”

“It’s about moving the colleges forward,” Espegard said at the meeting. “I like that approach rather than just saying, ‘Let’s make it work so it doesn’t affect as much.’"

What’s in a name?

As the Pathways program moves forward, the state board may consider rebranding it and distancing it from Shirvani and the turmoil of the past year.

After a program update during the Legislature’s Interim Higher Education Funding Committee meeting, Sen. Ray Holmberg and others recommended “repackaging” the plan to reflect the changes made and to avoid the stigma.

Some joked that the word “pathways” caused panic attacks in the Legislature.

Skogen said he understood their concerns.

“A label on something or the name on something can carry a lot of baggage with it,” he said.

“We had a bad patch last year, among institutions, with the system office,” he said. “This plan was rolled out in the midst of all that. Obviously there’s some baggage on it.”

While he wasn’t sure if the title itself was “toxic,” he said the board would decide if a name change would make sense.

Other changes

Meeting with legislators also prompted some discussion about the metrics used to gauge student success at each of the system’s 11 campuses.

Generally, the system uses four- and six-year graduation rates and retention rates in determining success, a federally mandated metric that makes it easy to compare state schools to their peers nationwide.

Members of the Legislature emphasized assessing learning beyond graduation rates.

Diederich said the board is reinstating its academic committee, including faculty and student representatives, to address learning outcomes.

They’ll discuss how to “assess learning to make sure our academic standards are being met as well as graduation and retention,” she said.

Additional kinks in the Pathways plan to be addressed in the coming months include adjusting the tuition model, looking at international students, at-risk students and remedial education and aligning the program with changes to the K-12 curriculum.

Diederich said “changes in the leadership within the system office” have opened up conversations with the Department of Public Instruction, which is rolling out the Common Core curriculum in K-12 schools.

She said they share a PK-20 vision of education in North Dakota — from preschool to graduate school.

The system office has marked March as the target date for the final plan, which will be reviewed by the board. The final step in making changes to the admissions criteria at area colleges is working with high school educators and counselors to communicate the new standards to prospective students across the state.

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