Retooling at MnSCU for recovery

Published 9:11 am Friday, June 10, 2011

Column: John Van Hecke, Guest Column

Since the legislative session began, I’ve repeatedly paged through the state’s little green session guide. I noticed a lot of policymakers attended one of Minnesota’s many schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which got me thinking: If all of these state leaders depended on MnSCU for an accessible, affordable higher education to help them succeed, why would they want to limit that opportunity for other Minnesotans?

John Van Hecke

Why do conservatives so severely want to cut a vital economic development tool that will supply Minnesota businesses with a well-skilled, adaptable labor force?

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I’ll get back to that question. In the meantime, let’s talk about MnSCU.

Minnesota 2020’s latest report, Retooling Minnesota for Recovery, finds: “When out-of-work Minnesotans needed access to education, MnSCU was there — in 47 communities across 54 campuses in every corner of the state.”

Riverland Community College saw an 8.8 percent jump in its credit-seeking head count from fiscal year 2008 to FY2010.

MnSCU played a critical role helping nontraditional students, those 25 and older, displaced by the recession quickly retrain and upgrade their skills to compete for jobs in new industries or attain higher-paying, more stable careers.

One of the fastest growing age categories returning to school was students 25-34, an area where Riverland experienced nearly 19 percent growth from FY08 to FY10. Riverland also had the state’s highest proportion of students 55 and older. More than 5 percent of the school’s students are in that age category compared to just 2 percent across all of MnSCU’s colleges and tech schools.

While Minnesotans entered or returned to school for training in a number of career fields, 33 percent of nontraditional students graduated with degrees from health programs, comprising MnSCU’s highest proportion of nontraditional graduates.

Steve Hine, with the Department of Employment and Economic Development, believes the trend of nontraditional students enrolling into health programs will continue. Training and staffing well-skilled health care professionals statewide is critical in the coming decades, as retirements and aging baby-boomers create a double crunch on demand.

DEED predicts health fields will lead the next decade’s labor market growth, specifically jobs in personalized and home care and registered nursing, with a combined 51,000 new jobs.

Investing in MnSCU’s Greater Minnesota campuses is vital to ensure that supply of health care professionals and other highly-trained workers keep pace with demand in rural areas. Skilled workers already living in and connected to a community are much easier to attract than recruiting from the metro or even regional centers.

The MN2020 report also finds MnSCU is a direct resource for nearly 6,000 employers working with local institutions to customize industry-specific worker training programs.

Not only does MnSCU provide the state with an economic development asset, but its programs are vital to public safety. Roughly 9,000 firefighters and emergency responders graduate from MnSCU every year. The system has graduated 85 percent of the state’s recent law enforcement members.

MnSCU serves more than 400,000 credit-seeking and noncredit students statewide in every industrial sector critical to Minnesota. State funding has traditionally kept tuition and fees low for students, many of whom are working or raising a family while in school. However, in recent years, policymakers have been cutting MnSCU’s funding, leading to tuition increases and program slashes that have resulted in declining access and affordability.

When so many of these same policymakers enjoyed those two key assets — affordability and access — it’s difficult to understand why conservatives would want to pull the ladder of success up behind them by defunding MnSCU and the University of Minnesota.

Conservative ideology that seeks to cut investments in programs that have helped strengthen Minnesota’s economy—education, health care, and transportation—will not move Minnesota forward. Instead, smart public policy that values wide ranging, affordable access to well-funded higher education opportunities will guide Minnesota into the 21st century economy.

John Van Hecke is the executive director of Minnesota 2020. MN2020 is a nonpartisan, progressive think tank focusing on the issues that really matter: education, health care, transportation and economic development.