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Minnesota needs more vocational students, leaders say

After years of urging students to go to college for four years, Minnesota’s education leaders are rethinking that push for a bachelor’s degree.

More vocational education, they say, just might be the ticket for the state’s work force.

Over the past two years, state officials have rolled out proposals to strengthen Minnesota’s vocational-technical network and improve the school pipeline to the workplace.

Their efforts represent what some education leaders call a fundamental shift in how government and business are approaching vocational education.

“I don’t think we’ve seen this level of involvement and commitment ever,” said Alexandria Technical and Community College President Kevin Kopischke, who has worked in Minnesota vocational education for almost 40 years.

Minnesota has had a system of vocational-technical education for decades, much of it concentrated in the construction, manufacturing and health care trades and supported in part by labor unions.

But many education officials and employers say it has lost status over the past 15 to 20 years, the victim of state funding cuts to high schools and a growing push for students to receive four-year degrees.

“Students going through high school have been told, ‘You have to go to college,’ ” said Amy Walstien, director of education and workforce-

development policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “There hasn’t been that focus on the other types of (education), like career and technical.”

The recent recession and high unemployment of college graduates, however, have helped spark a change in thinking over the importance of a four-year degree.

“The leading voices have been the students and the business sector — students with their comments about crushing debt and job insecurity and industry with their complaints that they’re not able to fill the jobs that they currently have open,” said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka and chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

Industry is playing an unprecedented role in the discussions, said Mary Rothchild, director for workforce development for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

State funding for higher education has declined dramatically in the past decade. According to MnSCU data, in 2002 the state covered more than 66 percent of students’

tuition. By 2012, that had dropped to about 40 percent.

So Minnesota leaders are becoming increasingly interested in working with industry, she said. They’re seeing it more as a partner — and potential source of education funding.

And the education of choice for many Minnesota employers is becoming vocational. They’re seeing it as a faster, less expensive way for the state to provide them with skilled workers, Rothchild said.

“There’s very little interest by state legislatures in investing in higher education unless they see a return on investment” in the form of skilled workers, she said. “And the return on investment is dictated by the private sector.”

The push began building in Minnesota in 2012, when MnSCU and the state Chamber of Commerce spent months asking businesses around the state what skills they’re looking for. They wanted MnSCU to make its college programs more relevant to employers.

“We’ve done a better job listening and trying to understand that, and a better job trying to respond to it,” said MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone.

Since then, he has pushed for more state funding for internships, equipment and faculty training.

Last year Rosenstone announced a plan to put into action some of the things MnSCU had learned from talking to employers.

In addition to better aligning college courses to the needs of business, it also would increase the number of apprenticeships and make the workforce training system more affordable and easier to navigate.

Lawmakers also have come out with their own proposals — to strengthen vocational programs, expose high-school students to technical trades, and provide students with precise skills.

The discussion isn’t confined to vocational programs. Some of the proposals call for more hands-on learning and career skills in classes offered at four-year campuses as well.

The new vocational tone has raised at least one concern.

Dane Smith, president of the St. Paul think tank Growth & Justice, said he does support the expansion of vocational education. But he cautioned against making it the default option for low-

income and minority students, who often don’t have the academic background of their middle- and upper-class white peers.

“We shouldn’t consign, relegate or give up too easily on the four-year potential of a lot of these students,” he said.