Apology to St. Olaf and Minnesota students

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by Joe Nathan, 6/5/08 • Several weeks ago I wrote a column with a serious mistake. The column discussed what I felt, and feel, is a major, mostly undiscussed problem in Minnesota – shockingly low graduation rates at many of our colleges and universities. There’s plenty of evidence on this that I’ll share later in the column. But my earlier column provided inaccurate information about St. Olaf College. For that, I apologize to you, the readers, St.Olaf, and to anyone who may have formed an opinion about that college, based on what I wrote.

The CORRECT information is that as of 2006, St. Olaf had a 79.7% four-year graduation rate, and 84.7% six-year graduation rate (thus, almost 85% of students who entered St. Olaf in 200 graduated within six years).

My earlier column stated that St. Olaf had a 54.9% four-year graduation rate, and a 65.7% six-year graduation rate. This information was wrong. It came from “Minnesota Measures,” a February, 2008 report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education (MOHE). This information was wrong.

After Steve Blodgett, St. Olaf’s Director of Marketing and Communications at St. Olaf wrote to me, I checked with Susan Heegaard, MOHE director. She was clear and direct. “We are very sorry, and deeply regret this mistake.” Earlier this spring, her staff had noticed mistakes in data for seven Minnesota private colleges, including St. Olaf. According to Jim Bohy, Associate Director of Higher Education Accountability for MOHE, “information was inadvertently swapped” while being prepared for publication.

Many people, including me, received the “Minnesota Measures” that had the inaccurate information. Heegaard explained that when MOHE discovered the mistake, it changed the report “on-line”, reprinted the report with correct information, sent out more than 1500 copies, and notified the seven schools whose information was incorrect in the original edition. I wrote the original column before receiving an updated, accurate edition.

Heegaard and her staff acted non-defensively and honorably. They readily acknowledged the mistake and fixed in. I want to do the same.

St. Olaf officials with whom I talked last week asked for a correction, and graciously accepted apologies from MOHE and me. But they strongly agreed with the central message of “Minnesota Measures.” As Dr. Susan Canon, St. Olaf’s Director of Institutional Research concluded, it’s “essentially true” that graduation rates at many of Minnesota’s colleges are universities are quite low. Dr. Blodgett agreed, “Your general focus is on target.” The corrected report is at www.ohe.state.mn.us/mPg.cfm?pageID=1733

It shows that many of the state’s community colleges have THREE-year graduation rates of less than 30%, and some are less than 20%! The report also shows that 21 of Minnesota’s 36 four-year universities have SIX-year graduation rates of less than 60%.

Why? That’s the subject of an upcoming column. But clearly, we owe an apology to students throughout the state. Students have some responsibility in this. But we have not prepared many of them well enough, or made arrangements at many universities, so that most of them succeed.