After weeks of planning, members of the Minnesota Senate took to the road this week on the #myMNdegree listening tour.
Day one of the tour took the team to Mesabi Community College. The group was welcomed by an auditorium full of students who came to present the successes and challenges they have experienced throughout their college careers. The body of students was initially hesitant to talk, but once the ball got rolling, students began opening up about the frustrations they have encountered. Many students brought up the issue of student debt, which is at an alarmingly high rate. When Senator Bonoff asked how many students had over $10,000 in debt, nearly half of the filled auditorium raised their hands. This sparked a conversation around debt-forgiveness legislation as a potential solution to this issue.
The cost of college was only one of the issues brought forward by the students. In addition to tuition worries, many students spoke about the problems they have had with their transfer credits. Several students that have transferred have found that many of the credits they earned at an institution are not accepted by their new College or University. When a student’s credits do not transfer, their College experience is extended even further and, with it, the cost of attendance. This requires them to take on more debt in order to pay for school.
The concerns mentioned above are not unique; they are patterns that must be addressed. However, other students that came forward presented some interesting thoughts on other areas to improve. One student spoke about the culture of testing in our E-12 institutions. She believed that it is detrimental to student growth and that teachers should teach to their student’s abilities, rather than prepping them for a test. We also heard from a young man who spoke about the need to develop youth into quality citizens rather than focusing on pushing them through a line to produce workers. He emphasized the importance of character development working in tandem with academic achievement.
After a wonderful start to the tour, the group then hopped back in the car and drove to Vermillion Community College. As you may expect based on the location, Vermillion places a high focus on environmental programs. Students are studying a broad range of topics from fire control to taxidermy. Once again, the team was welcomed by a room full of students who came to have their voices heard from state and local leaders.
Several of the issues that were stated on the first stop, such as the impact of tuition and debt as well as the need to create a system of comprehensive transfer pathways, were repeated at Vermillion. However, much of the conversation revolved around the need for practical, real-world experience in the fields of study. Many students praised their internship experiences and encouraged the State to fund programs that encourage partnerships between private businesses and our post-secondary institutions. As one student pointed out, you can’t learn how to fight a fire by reading it in a book.
Senator Bonoff mentioned her recent trip to Germany where she learned about their dual-track system, which partners students with private companies that train the students and hire them as employees after they have earned their degree. This is a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) arrangement. The students gain practical experience in their field of study and are guaranteed a job after they finish their program. The business benefits from the work done by the student during their internship and then wind up with an employee that has the exact set of skills they are looking for at that company.
Following a successful day one on the #myMNdegree listening tour, the team drove back down to Duluth to visit the University of Minnesota Duluth and Lake Superior College. The forum at UMD was a more intimate set-up. With a smaller number of students in the crowd, Senators Terri Bonoff and Greg Clausen were able to have a more nuanced conversation and connect deeper with the students. Similar issues were brought forward related to student debt relief, concurrent education, and the importance of internships. However, the intimate setting facilitated more detailed conversation. For instance, as the group discussed online learning and the potential that MOOC’s have to lower cost and increase accessibility to post-secondary education, one student came forward with the idea of taking online courses to satisfy your required “generals”. She noted that those subjects are important, but can often hold students back who know what field of study they want to pursue and do not need to explore other areas. By taking the classes online, the students can save time and money, while not eliminating the general education requirements by the schools.
Another student came from St. Scholastica, just a few blocks away from the UMD campus, to share his story on the decision he is going to have to make between remaining on his health insurance plan or taking time off to work and earn money to afford grad school. He can remain on his insurance plan as long as he is in school; however he cannot afford to be in school without taking on massive amounts of debt. His dilemma is unique, but the small forum gave him the opportunity to discuss his case in detail with the Senators and get reassurance that his situation would not be ignored.
The second visit on day number two was to Lake Superior College. The group felt welcomed as they passed a large sign promoting the tuition freeze at the entrance of the College. A packed room of students and faculty alike were waiting for the opportunity to share their thoughts with Senators Terri Bonoff and Greg Clausen. The balance of students and faculty in the room made for an interesting ambiance. The very first question that arose involved the cost of textbooks. This had not been mentioned at our previous visits and became a fascinating conversation around the use of online resources. Students were open to the idea of creating an online database of class materials. Rather than buy a textbook, it could be downloaded for free online. However, one faculty member that worked in the library pointed out that many students that have access to online materials end up printing them out anyways with an added cost to the school. Another student spoke about the test and memorization-oriented learning style that is indirectly promoted by Colleges and Universities. He was concerned that he wasn’t gaining skills and knowledge, rather he was cramming to pass a test and forgetting everything he learned a week later. The faculty in the room seemed receptive to his story. The Senators responded by expressing the need for competency-based learning programs and internship/apprenticeship opportunities as a way of overcoming this obstacle.
Day three of the listening tour took place at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Senator Kari Dziedzic and Representative Phyllis Kahn, the elected officials who represent the area, joined along for a tour of the College and the listening session with the students. Our tour guide was an amazing young woman from the Southside of Chicago (one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation). She is a first-generation college student who is involved in nearly every program that Augsburg offers. She told the group that she wanted to completely envelop herself in the college experience so she could share advice to her younger brothers, who hope to follow in her footsteps.
Once again, a packed full room of students came to listen to the Senators and share their thoughts. Given that Augsburg is a Private College, the line of questioning from the students centered on the State’s role in providing resources for the school. Many students did not know how the relationship between the State and the school functioned. They were interested to hear about the State Grant Program and the significant investment the State made in adding in additional $80 million into the program.
Once again, debt was a major conversation piece. A student representative thanked Senator Clausen for authoring a bill that would give a tax credit to Minnesotan’s that graduated and found employment in their field of study. This was a very popular bill that was ultimately deemed too expensive by the Tax Committee. Senator Dziedzic commented that the State dialogue needs to be changed from an attitude of “how much does this cost” to one of “how much will this save”.
One unique feature of Augsburg is the emphasis the school places on community outreach and service projects. Students participate in programs such as supplying local food shelves, cleaning up garbage on the street and assisting the surrounding Cedar/Riverside community. This feature makes Augsburg the perfect place for the newly funded Collaborative Urban Education (CUE) program. This program is designed to place more people of color in our education programs. Last session, Kari Dziedzic and Senator Bonoff worked together to pass this funding for four schools around the State. Augsburg responded by immediately filling the program to capacity. School officials shared their excitement for the program and their gratefulness to the Legislature for approving the funding.
The first week, while busy, was a great success. Students were not reserved in sharing their thoughts and the elected officials did not shy away from any of the tough issues. This tour is the start to an on-going dialogue about the state of Higher Education in Minnesota and it couldn’t have started on a better note. Already the gears are turning on potential legislation surrounding debt relief, the creation of transfer pathways, and developing more partnerships between local businesses and the Colleges and Universities. We are excited to see what Week 2 has in store!