by CHRIS ROGERS
For now, Minnesota State College - Southeast Technical is still known as Southeast Tech, but this school's leaders recently proposed an expansion of its mission and programming that might make a name like "Southeast Community College" more appropriate. School leaders are considering just such a name change, and they plan to launch a new academic program that would make it easier for students to transfer to four-year universities and would, they hope, attract students who are currently picking community colleges in Rochester and La Crosse over Southeast Tech's Winona and Red Wing campuses.
College is supposed to be challenging, but for students trying to transfer credits they earned at one school to another school, navigating what transfers where, for how many credits, and whether transferred courses will actually count toward a major can be particularly complex and frustrating. Take Winona State University and Southeast Tech's accounting program. Southeast Tech students complete 60 credits to earn an associate's degree in accounting at Southeast Tech. If they want to go on to get a bachelor's degree in accounting at WSU, only six of those 60 credits will transfer, whereas WSU accepts 57 credits from accounting students of Rochester Community and Technical College, according to Southeast Tech President Dorothy Duran.
"I've hired, in the course of my career, a number of two-year accounting students who have wanted to pursue getting their certificates and becoming certified, and they've always been roadblocked by the fact that their credits were not accepted," Winona Port Authority Commission member and local accountant Mary Glubka said at a meeting last month with Duran. "They were perfectly capable and well-educated in the area, but it became prohibitive for them to go forward," Glubka said.
Accounting is one of the more extreme examples, but lots of other courses do not transfer well from Southeast Tech to WSU — numerous nursing and English courses only transfer as electives that cannot be counted toward a major, for example. That is despite the fact that Southeast Tech and WSU have a good and close-knit relationship. The two schools share information technology and personnel departments, they have worked out numerous agreements for accepting transfer credits above and beyond what the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system requires, and WSU — according to WSU Provost Pat Rogers — is one of the best MnSCU universities when it comes to accepting transfer credits.
"It's a concern," said Pascale LaPorta, a Southeast Tech student who hopes to transfers to a four-year university and go on to law school.
Southeast Tech does not always take credits from other MnSCU schools either. Dillon Jones transferred to the technical college after two years at Riverland Community College in Albert Lea, another MnSCU school. Only one semester's worth of classes transferred to Southeast Tech. "That stinks," Jones remembered thinking. "I thought I was following the correct path."
Making it easier for students to transfer within MnSCU schools has long been a goal of the state agency. MnSCU launched the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum in 2002, a package of general education requirements that are accepted across the system — that is, if students complete the whole package. If students only complete a handful of classes from the list — while waiting to get accepted at the school of their choice, say — those classes may or may not transfer.
It is up to the schools receiving transfer students to decide what courses they will accept and how much credit they will give students for them. University faculty and administrators are sometimes concerned that classes at technical schools are not as rigorous as university courses or that instructors at technical schools do not have the same credentials, Duran said in an interview. "The reputation was that we were a vocation school and that we were very focused on the trades and the technical skills and that we did not meet the standards of transfer courses," Duran stated. That, however, is a misconception, she said.
Frequently, the courses other schools offer and the courses students take at WSU are not apples to apples, Rogers said. For instance, many two-year schools offer a course called "Intro to Education" and so does WSU. Sounds like it should transfer, right? Rogers said that WSU education majors actually take "Intro to Education" as juniors and seniors, after they have taken numerous prerequisites. So students go into the class with more background knowledge and the class is much more in-depth as a result, she said. "It's really not the same class … the courses don't have the same depth," she stated.
WSU does not give students credit if they have not completed the in-depth coursework they need to prepare for the next level of classes they will take at WSU, Rogers explained. "We want to make sure they can succeed and make sure they can go all the way through," she said.
Duran said there are numerous classes at Southeast Tech with virtually identical coursework, but that are not accepted at four-year schools like WSU. Rogers and Duran did agree that the change Duran is proposing will go a long way to make transferring easier for students.
Duran's proposal would add an Associate of Arts Degree (AA), a degree in liberal arts and sciences, to Southeast Tech's offerings. Southeast Tech and WSU faculty have gotten together in recent years to iron out the differences between their courses on a case-by-case basis, but an AA degree would make transferring credits more "automatic," they said.
"It's easier for a person with an Associate of Arts to get on their merry way," Rogers stated. "It takes care of so many questions a person might have about their [general education] requirements … We know they're ready to walk in and get going," she added.
"Some four-year schools will pick and choose from credits, but when it's an Associate of Arts, it's a respected credential," Duran said. In part, the new degree and a possible name change would help change how four-year schools perceive Southeast Tech, Duran and Southeast Tech Dean of Liberal Arts Jo Poncelet said. "People understand that [an AA degree]," Poncelet explained. "That has history."
"I feel like it's great for the school," Scott Foster said of adding an AA degree. Foster is a Southeast Tech Student Senate leader who plans to transfer to WSU; in fact, he is currently taking classes at both schools. "Maybe [other students] will consider Southeast a more viable option. Maybe they'll consider taking their [general education courses] here for cheaper," he said.
With the costs of college rising, Southeast Tech has seen a growing number of students who want to get their start at the school before transferring to a four-year university. Many local young people are picking Rochester and La Crosse schools over Southeast Tech because they do not think of Southeast Tech as a place to go for that, Duran said. Southeast Tech leaders have also gotten nudges from local high schools with students enrolled in college courses through concurrent enrollment and the state's Post-secondary Enrollment Options program (PSEO). Through PSEO, highly motivated students could conceivably finish an associate's degree before they leave high school at virtually no cost to them, Duran observed. However, many high schools are sending their students elsewhere for that. "We've had high schools shy away from sending their students here because it was a technical college," Poncelet said.
Of the 24 two-year schools in the MnSCU system, Southeast Tech is one of only four that are still purely technical schools, Duran said. She said most of those four schools will likely move toward more comprehensive, community college-style offerings.
Southeast Tech needs approval from the MnSCU Board of Trustees in St. Paul before it can add an AA degree or change its mission and name. Duran submitted a draft proposal to the MnSCU office last week and hopes the trustees will approve her request this spring.
Duran said she did receive concerns from some trustees who were worried that changing the school's mission might take away from its technical offerings: programs in machining, welding, mechanics, and instrument repair. Winona Port Authority leaders also discussed the importance of maintaining the quality of technical education at Southeast Tech to help supply local industries with capable employees. "That will not change," Duran said. "We are a technical institution. We have many manufacturers here. We need to be responsive to them. That will not change." The Port Authority Commission unanimously supported Duran's proposal.
There will be a community forum to gather public input on the proposed AA degree and a possible name change later this month, on Monday, February 22, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Southeast Tech in Winona, 1250 Homer Road.
If approved, Southeast Tech's new AA program would start this fall.