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Solving for efficiency

Doctoral student Frank Blalark closes the gap between his work and research in higher education

Frank Blalark focuses on efficiency. At his job as director of the University’s Office of the Registrar, that means the efficiency of graduation rates and degree production.

Blalark is also a graduate student and a dad. With five chapters of his dissertation written, he has never stopped working fulltime.

It’s probably not surprising that his dissertation is about efficiency—specifically in public research universities. What surprises even Blalark, a first-generation college student, is that he’s in a Ph.D. program at all.

Blalark grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, and overcame asthma to compete in football, track, and wrestling. His dad, an all-American wrestler, died when Blalark was 15. With a football scholarship, he followed a friend to college in South Dakota.

“I came into college as a smart kid who got bad grades,” he smiles. “A 1.8 GPA my freshman year.”

Blalark used his high quantitative aptitude to begin college in computer science, but he switched to history and education and prepared to teach. Friends talked him into applying for graduate school. He earned a master’s in counseling and human resource development and went to work as a minority student recruiter.

Helping a stranger with heavy luggage at an airport one day got Blalark thinking about a Ph.D. The stranger was Dr. Jeanette Davidson, director of African and African American studies and associate professor of social work at the nearby university.

Blalark eventually moved to Minnesota. He soon discovered the doctoral program in educational policy and administration in the College of Education and Human Development.

“Frank is one of the most inquisitive people I know,” says his adviser, professor Darwin Hendel. “He’s always looking at problems with a different perspective.”

Blalark credits Hendel with keeping him in the program when broad interests, from math to philosophy, kept distracting him.

“I see myself as a lifelong learner with an insatiable appetite—even as a little kid, I read almost anything,” says Blalark. “My adviser helped me settle down.”

The combination of an outstanding program and the University’s comprehensive learning environment has provided a rich research experience for Blalark. He has been able to learn from experts in fields including statistics, bioinformatics, computer science, economics, and philosophy. He has made professional connections across the country; Davidson, the professor who got him thinking about a Ph.D. in the first place, is still one of them.

He has also learned from his job. The Office of the Registrar manages all aspects of student academic records, the matriculation of students who transfer colleges with the University, degree posting and diploma production, degree enrollment certifications, and official transcripts.

Blalark is interested in looking at the way such things as graduation rates and the number of students who graduate relate to institutional efficiency. For his dissertation, he is comparing baccalaureate-degree systems at public and private four-year research universities, using principal-agent theory and data envelopment analysis based in economics.

“I’m already using my degree and I haven’t finished it yet,” he jokes.

Read more about the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development.

March 2012

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