With the election behind us and the 2013 Legislature in session, I encourage your support of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) budget proposal. Much is at stake for the colleges of the Northeast Higher Education District (NHED) as well as the other member colleges of MnSCU. The colleges included under the Northeast Higher Education District are Hibbing Community College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range Community and Technical College, Rainy River Community College, and Vermilion Community College.
The state and our region are facing a vexing challenge with many of our employers in mining, utilities, manufacturing, wood products and healthcare trying to address a dire need for skilled workers. Employers look for strong technical and foundational skills of analytical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and exceptional work ethic. Technological advances in industry have dramatically changed the prerequisite skills required in today’s job market. The painful reality is that while job opportunities exist, many individuals (174,000 Minnesotans) who are unemployed do not have the education needed for the new economy. We are also hearing of projections telling us that 70 percent of the jobs in the state will require post-secondary credentials within the next five years. If left unattended, this ‘skills gap’ will take a tremendous toll on individuals, families, employers and the economy of our region and state.
The colleges of the Northeast Higher Education District serve as a solution to the ‘skills gap’ and are vitally committed to closing this gap. Each year, the colleges graduate students who are well prepared to enter the regional job market.
Despite our positive track record of preparing students for jobs of the future, the colleges of the District face significant obstacles due to the state’s disinvestment in higher education. Over the past 12 years, we have experienced steady and deep cuts to our state appropriation. The cuts in Minnesota (48 percent) have been twice as deep as the national average (23 percent). The District colleges have lost $7 million in appropriation since 2008 and the impact has been cuts in programs, inadequate investment in state-of-the-art equipment and technology, and reductions in personnel. Our faculty are in their fourth year without pay increases and they are the engines behind the ‘skills gap’ solution.
Our colleges have two sources of funding - state appropriation and tuition. The state’s disinvestment has put significant pressure on our other source of funding. While we have seen tuition increases over the last several years, we have worked hard to keep tuition and fees at a fraction of the price in comparison with the private, for-profit education providers. In fact, holding the line on tuition is a key part of the MnSCU budget proposal. The proposal before the legislature will include a very modest tuition increase of $145/year for the colleges of the District.
The MnSCU budget proposal also includes other features that accentuate affordability and access. These include a commitment to raise $20 million in private funds for scholarships to assist 16,000 students across the system and a proposal to expand financial aid availability through the state grant program for an additional 8,200 students.
Another key feature of the budget proposal, one central to advancing the prosperity of the state, is aligning academic programs with the needs of employers; a priority that has been the strategic focus of the Northeast Higher Education District colleges. The NHED General Program Advisory Committee, consisting of representatives from the major economic drivers in the region, as well as our program advisory committees, are charged with ensuring this alignment is ongoing. Our industry partners also have a seat at our program planning table to ensure that curriculum accomplishes the job of preparing graduates for the realities of the work environment.
Access to state-of-the-art, industry-relevant equipment is also vital to the success of our programs, and the budget proposal calls for matching state and private funds for equipment, technology and applied research. Additional matching funds are proposed for internships and apprenticeships that provide students with hands-on learning experiences; such as that of our Iron Range Engineering program, a program that boasts an almost perfect placement rate for graduates. These aspects of the budget proposal represent tremendous opportunities to advance the competitiveness of our graduates in the workplace, and ensure that their education includes the rigor and relevance necessary to address the identified ‘skills gap’.
Finally, the budget request is focused on accelerating completion and increasing student success. By expanding the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options and Concurrent Enrollment for students, we will help students accelerate their education plans while saving money for their families and gaining efficiencies for the state. These legislatively endorsed “early college” options are vital to preparing students for college, keeping student debt load down, and equipping them with the skills they need to get the jobs employers are looking to fill.
The MnSCU budget proposal represents a tremendous opportunity for the state and the region to enhance the vitality of the economy and I encourage the people we serve to express their support for this proposal to our lawmakers.
Dr. M. Sue Collins is President of the Northeast Higher Education District.