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University of Utah's 'Pac-12 plan' seeks to boost academic standards, diversity

Published: Sunday, April 17 2011 10:31 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — If officials at the University of Utah have their way, the student body will look very different in five years, more high-achieving and diverse.

Administrators recently presented the school's desired future "student enrollment profile" to the U.'s trustees. While the university hopes to hold its enrollment head count steady at about 32,000, more of those students will come from out-of-state and overseas, under the "Pac-12 plan" developed by consultants over the past year and a half.

The U. hopes to raise its academic profile to be in line with the schools in its new, high-profile athletic conference as well as other research universities across the country.

The university's goals include:

A 50-50 gender split in all classes. Now, there are an equal number of men and women in incoming freshman classes, but that tilts 55-45 toward men as women drop out to get married and start families. Officials said they believe the U. is the only major research university in the country that has a majority of male students. They hope to help women stay in school by offering flexible schedules and more child care.

Seventy-five percent of students from Utah, 20-25 percent from out-of-state and 7-10 percent international, from at least 50 foreign countries. The U. has stepped up its out-of-state recruitment efforts, especially in Texas and California. It's already seeing increases from those states, as well as Idaho and Nevada. International applications are up 29 percent over last year, including many from China in partnership with Kaplan University, and many from the Middle East.

An average ACT score of 26 for incoming freshmen, which would put the U. in the upper 15 percent in the country. The average now is 24. The U. wants 90 percent of its freshmen to be in the top half of their graduating high school class, and for half to have a high school GPA of at least 3.5.

An undergraduate-graduate ratio of 70-30, and a full-time/part-time ratio of 75-25.

An increase in students graduating within six years from 56 percent to 70 percent, and in retention from first- to second-year students from 65 percent to 85 percent. Officials concede those numbers will be a "real stretch," especially with the break many students take to serve an LDS mission.

Half of freshmen living on campus, up from 30 percent. That's physically impossible now, even with the recent groundbreaking for a 312-bed Honors College housing project. But officials say a move away from a commuter campus will make the U. more vibrant and make students more likely to persist through graduation.

President Michael Young told trustees that by toughening admission standards, the U. will be able to "shape" each incoming class to create an optimal experience for each student. Currently, some programs are overfilled while others have too few students.

The uneven numbers mean resources are not maximized. Officials hope more focused advising, with more active participation from faculty, will guide students into programs where they will be successful instead of changing majors, as many now do several times.

Barbara Snyder, the U.'s vice president for student affairs, said the school is perfectly positioned to raise its academic profile as the attention of joining the Pac-12 attracts more applicants. Freshman applications are up 14 percent over last year.

"You can't minimize the impact of that kind of exposure and opportunity," Snyder said.

In addition, she said, an expected surge in Utah high school graduates and continued population growth along the Wasatch Front will swell the U.'s applicant pool. Meanwhile, compared to other states, Utah's relatively stable fiscal situation should prevent the deep cuts state schools elsewhere have experience.

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