by NATHANIEL NELSON
In Minnesota, many employers are struggling to fill the staffing numbers they need to keep up –– particularly in manufacturing and agricultural fields. Luckily, upcoming high school graduates will have a chance to make their college career a little easier if they’re looking to fill those slots: Minnesota State College Southeast (MSC-SE), along with several other Minnesota State colleges, will be expanding their workforce development scholarships over the next several years. At MSC-SE alone, 18 students will be given $2,500 toward their tuition in any of more than a dozen different high-demand programs.
Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra visited MSC-SE on Thursday as part of a four-day, 20-stop tour to discuss the organization’s expanded scholarship program, which is an extension of a pilot program that began last year.
In 2017, the Minnesota legislature appropriated $1 million toward a pilot program to fund scholarships in suffering fields, including advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care and information technology. The goal of the program was to bolster application and retention of students in programs for those high-demand careers, particularly as the older workforce ages into retirement.
That first year, MSC-SE received seven scholarships, which was expanded to 18 for the 2019-2020 school year. In total, the school will award more than $40,000 in scholarships to MSC-SE students, explained Jennifer Eccles, the interim vice president of academic affairs at MSC-SE, focusing particularly on recent high school graduates from rural communities.
“It’s going to help students that never thought they could go to college,” she explained.
According to Malhotra, 75 percent of all emerging jobs require some kind of post-secondary education, whether that’s from a two-year or four-year institution. As a result, it’s crucial for the state and for colleges to find ways to make higher education more affordable, and the pilot program was a resounding success –– students with the scholarships showed a 90-percent retention rate from their first to their second year of school, which is more than 20 percent higher than the Minnesota State system average of roughly 70 percent.
As a result of the success, the legislature approved an expansion of the program, adding an additional $1 million for the 2019-20 year and $6 million for 2020-21. Essentially, this expands the program exponentially, from 400 scholarships in its inaugural year to 2,400 in 2021.
For MSC-SE, that means that as many as 70 or 80 students will have the opportunity to receive funds for their studies, Eccles explained.
At MSC-SE, the scholarships are available in 19 different programs across six fields: agriculture, health care, early childhood education, information technology, manufacturing and transportation. The fields, while selected by the legislature, are as varied as can be –– the funding can go toward radiography, cyber technology, and even bicycle design.
“We want as many people to apply for these scholarships as possible,” Eccles said.
Josh Hansen, a recent graduate of the college’s CNC machine tool program, showcased part of a hand-crafted chess set that he made as part of his senior capstone. Hansen was one of the awardees for the initial pilot program, and he explained that the scholarship made a huge difference in his career.
“It was absolutely huge,” Hansen said. “I’ve only been given two scholarships, and this was the biggest by a mile.”
Next year, four-year universities in the system –– like Winona’s own Winona State University –– will also be able to take part in the program. Any student who has graduated from a two-year Minnesota State college and received the scholarship previously will also be eligible for an additional $2,500 in their first year at a four-year school, bringing the total possible award to $7,500 over three years.
“For our low-income students, a $500 or $1,000 scholarship can make or break their decision to stay in college,” Malhotra added.
Aside from just helping students graduate and find jobs, Malhotra explained that the program will also help communities, too. For one, 80 percent of Minnesota State system graduates stay in Minnesota, helping as an economic driver for various small and local businesses, but college graduates also tend to be more civically engaged, he said.
However, the scholarship program is still only the first step.
“I’m under no illusion that an $8-million investment in our students, as great as that is, will solve all our workplace shortages,” Malhotra said. “I’m also under no illusion that there isn’t any more heavy lifting to be done.”
The next step for the program, in addition to expanding the number of scholarships, will be continuing to build more industry and community partners. The more involved the community is in the next generation of workers, Malhotra explained, the better off Minnesota will be.