We have just completed week 2 of the #myMNdegree listening tour and are pleased to report that once again, the Colleges and Universities we visited surpassed our expectations. Students came out to share their thoughts and express their frustrations with the post-secondary education system in Minnesota. This week, we were able to visit a wide-range of public and private institutions that serve varying demographics of students. Themes from the first week reappeared, such as putting an emphasis on internships and reducing the cost of a degree in Minnesota. However, this week also provided new feedback about issues that were not mentioned at the stops on Week 1.
Week two kicked off with a visit down to Winona State University. This was a special trip for the #myMNdegree team as we were joined by two local Legislators that have a significant presence, not only in their community, but also in the Higher Education realm. Representative Gene Pelowski, Chair of the Higher Education Committee in the House of Representatives, welcomed the group as we arrived on campus. Dressed in all purple (Winona’s school colors), Representative Pelowski knew more about the University than some of the officials who ran the tour. He took us on a tour of a facility that Winona State is hoping to transform into an “Education Village”. This is where we were joined by our other esteemed guest, Senator Jeremy Miller. The Minority lead for the Senate Higher Education/Workforce Development Committee, Senator Miller is also a staple of the community in Winona. Everywhere we went he and Rep. Pelowski were recognized by students, staff, and other members of the community. Needless to say, we were in good hands.
After an impressive tour of the proposed Education Village, the team gathered in a classroom to hear from students. We were fortunate enough to have students come from three schools: Winona State, Southeast Technical College, and St. Mary’s. Once the floor was opened to the students, they did not take much coaxing to get started. The first topic of conversation was the creation of transfer pathways, a system that would allow credits from one institution to transfer to another with little to no hiccups. Right now, students that transfer say that they risk being forced to take a class that they have already passed at another institution. The #myMNdegree team agreed that this is an unnecessary burden for our students. This was a theme from last week, but one thing that we had not heard was the difference in transferability of PSEO credits vs. AP credits. Students at this stop told us that the AP credits they received in High School had a much wider range of transferability than the PSEO courses they took.
Other issues discussed at Winona State included the emphasis on internship opportunities for our students, as well as inquiries about what we can do to address the lack of diversity in our post-secondary education institutions.
Our next stop brought us to the University of Minnesota Rochester. Located above a shopping mall in the center of Rochester, UMR plays a unique role in the Rochester community. As most know, Rochester is renowned for being the home of the Mayo Clinic. Students at UMR come for the specific health sciences programs and the small size of this school, but they also end up contributing to the atmosphere in Rochester. They bring a sense of youth and vitality to the city. Once again, we were joined by local Legislators.
Accompanying the team in Rochester were Representative Kim Norton, Senator David Senjem, and Senator Carla Nelson. It was a pleasure having their input when we spoke with students about the issues facing them. Given the close proximity to the Mayo and other Rochester businesses, students at Rochester wanted to know about what the State was doing to facilitate public-private partnerships. They want to see more internship and apprenticeship opportunities available to them and they believe the State plays a key role in making this happen. Senator Bonoff told students that one of her main priorities of the 2014 Legislative Session was to begin work in this area and connect Minnesota businesses with our post-secondary institutions. This collaboration is ultimately best for all parties involved and should be emphasized statewide. Senator Nelson mentioned that UMR is doing a fantastic job of leveraging their position in the community to access internships for their students.
The conversation then switched to the cost of receiving a degree in Minnesota. At each stop we hear that it is simply unaffordable and that students cannot keep up with the rise in tuition. For example, a student at Rochester was grateful for the $4,000 he receives in aid, yet he is still not even close to being able to afford his education. Each stop also provides us with ideas on how to address this issue. At Rochester, we discussed potential legislation around a tax credit for Minnesota graduates that choose to stay and work in Minnesota. Senator Clausen, who authored a bill like this last session, believes that if you are contributing to Minnesota’s economy but are crippled with debt, the State has an obligation to pay you back for you service.
On the second day of Week 2, we visited the campuses of St. Olaf and Carleton College. We were joined by Representative David Bly and a staff member of Senator Kevin Dahle (who could not attend because he was teaching). The team arrived early at St. Olaf and so we were allowed an extended tour of the campus. This extra time on campus was made all the more enjoyable by the perfect weather. St. Olaf’s campus has the classic, college feel that you imagine when you picture an ideal College/University campus. With its old building, large trees, and vast amounts of open space for students to enjoy, St. Olaf has one of the more scenic campuses that we have seen. Founded well over 100 years ago, St. Olaf, a dry campus, has nearly 97% of the student population living on campus. This equates to a healthy campus atmosphere where everyone seemed to know their peers and was comfortable with their surroundings – something you don’t always see when you have a heavy commuter population.
Admittedly, St. Olaf takes the approach of high tuition/high aid model. While the sticker price to attend the school is high, they are proud of the financial aid assistance that they provide to their students. St. Olaf is a Private College, so it receives its State support through the State Grant Program. During our listening session, students made clear that they appreciate the new money that was put into that program this passed Legislative Session and hope to see it increase even further. One student mentioned how much help the Federal TRIO program has been. The TRIO program was put in place to assist first-generation, low-income students access everything they need in order to succeed. It offers intensive counseling and mentoring opportunities. Senator Bonoff mentioned that she wants to expand on this program, and although it is Federal, she said that she would reach out to U.S. Congressman John Kline to see what we can do at the State level to offer support.
Students at St. Olaf were very appreciative for the work done so far, and the new direction of Higher Education in Minnesota. One student thanked the Minnesota Legislature for passing the Prosperity Act, another faculty participant mentioned that had Minnesota been this committed to Higher Education when he was in school, he would have stayed here as opposed to moving out of the State to pursue his degree.
The afternoon concluded with a trip to Carleton College, a well-renowned Private College that is recognized as one of the elite Colleges in the Nation. Although they attract talent from across the U.S., Carleton takes pride in its Minnesota roots and recognizes that they play an important role in the State and local community. Given that Carleton doesn’t receive as much in private donations as a University like Harvard or Princeton, they insist that they do more with less. The listening session was not as flooded with students as other stops have been, but the students at Carleton lived up to their reputation as bright and engaged young people. The conversations were held at a high level and included topics that hadn’t been brought forward up to this point on the tour. One of the more interesting conversation pieces related to the idea of quantifying success at post-secondary institutions. As we discussed certain metrics that are often used to rate institutions, students mentioned that it is hard to measure “quality”. How do you put a number on a campus culture that facilitates higher learning and unique relationships? According to one Carleton student, this concept also applies to High School curriculum. To him the “test-taking” culture in our schools has resulted in a separation of the terms “hard work and good grades”, which should be synonymous. Senator Bonoff suggested moving to a more portfolio-based system that takes into account a large body of work from each student, rather than a system that rates your skills at test-taking. Bridging this divide and changes to the culture of education in our State is an underlying issue that must be addressed.
Another example of the high level of discussion at Carleton College was the conversation brought up about the idea that we may be sending too many of our young people to college. This concept is floating around in the nation-wide higher education discussion, but had not yet been brought up on our tour. There is a fear that we are forcing post-secondary education onto our students and that it is not right for everyone. Senator Clausen responded by stating that while the “traditional” path may not be the right fit for everyone, we should continue to encourage Minnesotan’s to pursue vocational and career training opportunities.
The last day of our tour week was spent touring schools in Downtown Minneapolis. Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) and Dunwoody College are located within the city and serve populations that are critical to addressing the gaps in our Workforce. We started the day at MCTC, where we were welcomed by President Davis and shown around campus. He took us to their new facility for the Nursing program. Students were hard at work with the nursing simulation machines and test-dummies. We were pleasantly surprised to see a large number of males taking part in the Nursing program. The student body at MCTC is diverse and the issues that were brought forward during the listening session exemplified this trait.
The listening session itself was moderated by the Student Senate President and included pre-written questions for our panel. We were fortunate to be joined by Senator Scott Dibble, who represents the area that MCTC is located in. One of the first topics of conversation was the cost of textbooks. Students claimed that the rate of increase in the cost of textbooks had outpaced the rate of increase of the cost of tuition. This is a significant issue and is a cost that students feel immediately. Senators Bonoff and Clausen discussed the potential of Open Educational Resources that can be downloaded from the internet as a way of saving on the cost of textbooks.
Given its location within Downtown Minneapolis, safety was a large part of the discussion at MCTC. Students say that crime on campus is less of an issue and that the school is doing a good job of partnering with local law enforcement to keep the campus safe. However, Downtown seems to be experiencing more random acts of violence (as noted by Senator Bonoff) and safety of students should be a number one priority at MCTC. Next, a student stepped forward from the other end of the spectrum. This student had a troubled past and has a record that he says is hurting his chances at receiving gainful employment after graduation. He wants to know what the State can do to help out people with criminal backgrounds that are looking for a second chance. Senator Bonoff explained that just this last session, the Minnesota Legislature passed the “Ban the Box” bill, which makes it illegal for employers to include a section on job applications that asks you about criminal history. Employers still have every right to inquire about this information during the interview, but the idea is that prospective employees will at least get a foot in the door and the chance to tell their story.
The last stop of week two was at Dunwoody College. Located just two blocks away from MCTC, Dunwoody is an engineering and technical school that teaches specific skills for jobs that are going to be in high demand in Minnesota. They teach future electricians, welders, tailors, etc. These are positions that you do not hear much about when we discuss the 21st century workforce, but will be vital to our society. We started with a listening session, and it must be noted that the students at Dunwoody had incredible stories to share. Most of the students in the room were non-traditional students that were older than the students we have seen at previous stops and had more life experiences, which put their education in context. For instance, the first student who stepped up to speak was a Veteran who grew up on the east coast in a, as he put it, “dirt-poor” family. His vision of college was that of the four-year, Liberal Arts degree that he said he did not fit into. It was until he had finished his stint with our military that he was exposed to vocational and technical opportunities that he fell in love with. Another student stood up and spoke about the financial difficulty that she is facing. Her family cannot afford to pay for school for her and her siblings, so she co-signed her brothers’ student loan so that he could attend college. This was quite admirable, but presents clear trouble for this student should her brother be unable to pay the loan. Her spirits were high though, as she announced to the #myMNdegree team that she had received a full-time job earlier that day. These stories are no longer exceptions; they are fast becoming the norm.
After the listening session, where we were joined by Senator Susan Kent, President Wagner took us on the tour to show off some of the impressive machinery that Dunwoody has to offer its students, as well as the national awards that the students have earned for the school. Senator Bonoff and Senator Kent were wide-eyed as they admired the work being done at Dunwoody and were left with an impression of the important role that it plays to the State of Minnesota.
Next week we will complete our tour. While it is not exhaustive, given we are not hitting every school, we are getting an in-depth overview of the Minnesota Higher education environment. We are inspired by our assets, which include our facilities, our faculty and leadership, our bright and engaged students and the wide variety of high quality choice available in Minnesota.