On Tuesday, the #myMNdegree listening tour packed up the car and headed to Northwest Minnesota to visit schools and meet with students.
Our first stop of the final week was to Concordia College, in Moorhead, MN. Concordia College is a Private, not-for-profit school with a deep history in community service and social justice projects. As we arrived, we were welcomed by Senator Kent Eken and Representative Ben Lien, both of whom serve on the Higher Education committees in their respective bodies. We were fortunate enough to visit on a gorgeous day. As we toured the busy campus students were out and about with books and long-boards in hand. After the tour, the #myMNdegree team sat down to lunch with Concordia Alumni who now work for major companies in the area. These alumni explained the importance of Concordia to the Fargo-Moorhead region, which is a major business hub for Minnesota and North Dakota.
As a Liberal Arts College, Concordia does not align curriculum with workforce trends. Rather, they emphasize a more broad education. They stressed the life-preparation that Concordia offers and shared that Concordia doesn’t just prepare you for your first job; it gives you the skills you need for your career.
The listening session at Concordia College centered on the cost of a post-secondary degree in Minnesota. The additional money put into the State Grant Program last session was very much appreciated by the students and faculty at Concordia, but the students probed deeper. They were grateful for the loan and scholarship opportunities, but are simply overwhelmed with the price of school. Aid packages go a long way in helping pay for college, but these students wanted to know why the sticker price of a #myMNdegree has risen so rapidly over the last 20 years… so do we. Given the social justice/community involvement history at Concordia, students were excited to learn about Senator Clausen’s idea for a loan forgiveness program for graduates who participate in Minnesota service projects after graduation.
From Concordia, the team participated in a joint tour/listening session at Minnesota State Community and Technical College (M State), and Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM). We sat down with officials from both schools who explained to us the amount of pressure that has been put on them to lower internal costs. They detailed the past ten years of State disinvestment, the negative effects that it has had on their ability to offer a stellar education, and how thankful they were that the State has chosen to take a new direction and reverse this trend. There is a new culture/focus in Minnesota Higher Ed that is being felt by Colleges and Universities across the State. They know that we will do all we can to be their partner in every way.
M State is a two-year Community and Technical College that trains students in Mechanics and Engineering. During our tour, the school showed us the Automotive Mechanical program. They have partnerships with private businesses that donate equipment like tractor trailers and cars for the students to work on. In fact, one company, CASE, directly sponsors eight students. They pay for their education and provide them jobs after they complete school. This relationship benefits both the students and the private business. We welcome this type of partnership across the State and hope to expand it.
The joint listening session for students at M State and MSUM took place on the 4-year, MSUM campus. Students from both schools packed the room and were pleasantly surprised when Office of Higher Education Commissioner, Larry Pogemiller joined the #myMNdegree team. The first student to get up and speak discussed the tuition freeze. His take was different than what we have heard at other schools, but he brought up great points. To summarize, while he was thankful for the freeze, he cautioned that it puts the school in a tough place as they can’t invest in additional resources for their programs. This ultimately hurts the quality of the education students receive. He says he would have favored a 3% tuition increase in exchange for increased resources like leveraged equipment for technical programs. This trade-off is something that the Legislature wrestled with last session and ultimately came to the conclusion that students needed immediate relief. Several students spoke up about how they decided to attend school in Minnesota because it was actually cheaper than the tuition in North and South Dakota.
The most interesting part of the listening session in Moorhead was the debate around transferability of credits. One student came forward and asked something that we have heard repeated at nearly every stop along the tour: what can we do to improve the transfer pathways in Minnesota? Senator Bonoff began her answer by stating that we absolutely need to address this issue, but explained that most often than not, it is out of the hands of the Legislature. Ultimately, faculty is responsible for approving or denying credits upon transfer and it may not be in the best interest of the State to make these sorts of judgments. A faculty member then stood up and applauded Senator Bonoff for acknowledging the intricacies of transfer credits. He warned that if we allow every credit from every institution to transfer, we risk homogenizing our schools. However, we must find a balance for the sake of our students. These conversations are exactly what we were hoping to find on our tour. Both sides were able to express their feelings in an open and respectful manner. Transfer pathways will be an issue that lives on after the listening tour has ended.
The very last speaker of the day was a faculty member as MSUM. He had come to Minnesota from Sierra Leone and explained that to him, #myMNdegree had saved his life. He said that without the ability to pursue Higher Education in the U.S., he may be dead. According to him, education should be viewed as the defense of our nation. Powerful words to end our trip to Moorhead.
The next day, the #myMNdegree team was up early to visit the Aerospace program at Northland Community and Technical College. Joining us on this stop were, Senator Leroy Stumpf, Representative Debra Kiel, and Representative Dan Fabian. This program was impressive to say the least. Classes take place in a hanger, where students have access to full jets, planes, and even drones. Students from this program see wages at $50-60,000 on the low end, and as high as $90-100,000. One school administrator commented on the incredible access to planes that students have, “It’s important for students in this field to see what “right” looks like, but it’s even more important that they see what “wrong” looks like.” His point is that certain fields cannot be taught in a classroom by reading out of a book, you must have first-hand field training in order to be prepared for real-world application.
After the morning visit to the Aerospace program, we visited the main campus for a listening session. Most students that came to speak at Northland were non-traditional students who were going back to school after years of life outside of academia. They mentioned that one frustration they have as non-traditional students is being forced to take courses and meet requirements that are in place for traditional students. One example they described was the fact that they were forced to take a “life skills” course that teaches students time and budget management. The older, non-traditional students do not need this as they have the life experience, yet they are forced to take it in order to graduate. Inefficiencies like this can have a negative impact on the attainment of a degree for non-traditional students. Another student discussed issues she is having with the FAFSA, which has a one-year lag on income information. For instance, she is currently locked out of working at American Crystal Sugar Company, yet her FAFSA has her registered as having the same income as when she worked there. This takes out a significant chunk of the Federal and State aid that she receives.
The Northwest trip ended with a visit at UMN Crookston, an Environment and Agriculture focused school that also produces many Liberal Arts degrees. On this trip, the #myMNdegree team participated in the listening session prior to receiving a tour of the campus. The Legislators were shocked at how many of the students knew one another’s name and story. While we did get several questions about the lack of resources for the Agro-education program, it seemed as though the students had all gathered in preparation for the arrival of the Higher Ed team, because they all had one thing on their minds… a new Wellness Center for the campus. When asked about debt, students raised their hands, but insisted that to them, the most important thing the Legislature can do for the campus is invest in a Wellness Center. In fact, students have even volunteered to be charged a fee in order to help pay of the renovation.
The tour, led by Chancellor Fred Wood, left the Legislators with nothing but positive impressions about the campus and the programs being offered at Crookston. We visited an interactive tech lab that allows students the ability to do everything from mapping patterns on food sources, to designing video games, to analyzing 3D MRI’s. The #myMNdegree team was in awe of the technology that students can access. Next came a stop at the Equine Center, where we interrupted a beginner horse-riding class and met some of the colts and foals. We then toured new classrooms that are designed to get away from the traditional professor lecture that you see at many schools. This new model, as Chancellor Wood noted, is designed to have the professor act as, “a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage.” As we continued on the tour, we visited dormitories that have classrooms located on the first floor. This is not something we have seen at any other visit and we were impressed with the on-campus efficiency.
On the final day of the three-week #myMNdegree listening tour, the team visited Hamline University and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. Hamline, a Private, not-for-profit University located along a bustling Snelling Ave in St. Paul, uses the high cost/high aid tuition model. They have several practices that encourage student completion in a timely manner. One policy they have is that they guarantee student completion in four years. If a student takes longer than four years to graduate, Hamline will pay for each additional year. In addition, all first-year students take a class taught by their counselor. This means that meet with their counselor at least two times a week in their first semester and receive focused advising. They have a Law School program that allows students to complete their undergrad in three years and begin their first year of Law School in their fourth year at Hamline. This saves the students a full year of classes and tuition. The average student completes about 2 ½ internships prior to graduation, 95% of which are paid internships.
Joined by Senator Susan Kent, Senator Terri Bonoff sat down with students for the morning listening session. Students at Hamline were not hesitant to discuss their experiences with post-secondary education in Minnesota. One Hamline student spoke about the relevancy of a Liberal Arts degree in the 21st Century Workforce. He said that with all the talk about the importance of STEM degrees, why should students pursue a Liberal Arts education. Senator Bonoff responded by insisting the Liberal Arts degrees are just as relevant as ever. They teach you how to think critically and outside of the box. You learn the communication skills that it takes to function in the professional world. She said that his ability to accurately articulate the Higher Education atmosphere and the declining emphasis on Liberal Arts degrees is a direct result from his Liberal Arts courses. Senator Kent echoed these thoughts and added that we can’t view education with a one-size-fits-all approach. Some students are suited to be engineers and mechanics, while others think best in broader terms and should be free to pursue whichever path they feel welcome.
The conversation then moved to internships. With the majority of students at Hamline participating in at least one internship, Senator Bonoff wanted to know about these experiences from a student perspective. Most students appreciated their internships but did express concern with the time-consuming nature of their experiences. Students have a hard time working two-jobs to pay for school, attending class, doing homework, and then trying to squeeze in 10 hours a week at an internship. Senator Bonoff described this as a major hurdle that must be overcome, one that is directly related to cost of tuition.
The conversation at Hamline ended on a discussion of College preparation in our High Schools. The Federal TRIO program served several students who attended our listening session by offering them assistance with the application process. Many people forget that the application fee that schools have can be a major deterrent for low-income students who may be qualified enough to attend better schools, but cannot afford the $90 fee to apply. Students at Hamline wanted to see more programs that assist High School students in preparing for the next level.
The visit to Hamline concluded with a tour of the campus from a Minneapolis South High graduate. This tour was refreshing in that it was a smaller group and we weren’t accompanied by any administrators or school officials. This allowed us the opportunity to hear directly from our students tour guide about campus life at Hamline.
The afternoon (and tour) concluded with a visit to the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus. We arrived a little early, so we took the opportunity to take an informal tour of the campus from our expert Alumnus, and Senator Bonoff’s Legislative Assistant, Sean Oyaas. Our tour included brief stops at Coffman Memorial Union, the main student center on campus, and a walk along the main courtyard. During this tour, we happened upon a rally for AFSCME faculty members at the University who were upset about a new contract that would increase their share of health care premiums. After a quick lunch among the students at Coffman, we met up with Senator’s Dziedzic and Clausen, as well as Representative Kahn for a meeting with President Dr. Eric Kaler and tour of the Heart Lab on campus.
The Heart Lab was quite fascinating. We learned about the very first advances in Heart treatment that had taken place in the very lab we sat some 60 years ago. It was in this lab that the first open-heart surgery was performed. It is also where the pace-maker was invented.
We journeyed from the East Bank, which is more STEM-friendly, to the West Bank (a Liberal Arts hub) for our listening session in the Humphrey School. Students filled the room ready to discuss Higher Education in Minnesota. It is only fitting that the first question at our last stop was the issue we had heard at every College and University that we visited on this trip – What is the Legislature doing to combat the rising cost of Higher Education in Minnesota? The Legislators at the table described the incredible investment that was made by the Governor and Legislature last session towards funding Higher Education. The additional $80 million dollars invested in the State Grant program is an immediate cost savings for students. The Legislature also bought down a tuition freeze for all students in the MnSCU and U of M systems. Senator Bonoff stated that this was not enough, it is just a start. We want to further explore our technology, like Open Education Resources as a cost savings for textbooks, and MOOCs as a tool to increase accessibility and affordability of school (not to replace the traditional classroom, but to enhance it). Senator Clausen expressed his desire to implement a tax credit program for Minnesota graduates who stay in the State after graduation.
One student spoke about how unpaid internships are extremely hard for our young people to fit in because of the need for income and lack of time. He noted that not even Minnesota Senate interns get paid. Senator Bonoff acknowledged this irony and stated that if we are going to encourage other businesses to offer paid internships, we need to be a leader in this area.
The intense, three week push on the #myMNdegree listening tour has come to an end, but the conversation lives on. We will take the lessons learned on this tour, as well as the relationships built, and use them to bring the Higher Education policy discussion to a new level. The end of this tour is the beginning of the conversation. Please contact us with questions, comments, or concerns about your experience with #myMNdegree so that we can more effectively do our job at the Legislature.