Last week, the head of Minnesota’s largest higher-education system sat down with the Hibbing Daily Tribune to discuss statewide issues of declining college enrollment and how schools are tackling the workforce shortage for high-demand careers.

Seated in the newly renovated campus at Hibbing Community College on Wednesday, Chancellor Devinder Malhotra told the HDT that the Board of Trustees overseeing Minnesota State Colleges and Universities had been meeting here to discuss student needs ahead of HCC’s renovation ceremony.

As Malhotra told it, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities — Minnesota State for short — is a network of 37 institutions, including 30 colleges and seven universities that enroll about 244,000 students. That figure, however, is slightly down from enrollment numbers in the past eight years.

“That is not unusual because very often when the economy is on its down cycle, people often come back to retrain and to acquire additional knowledge and skills to be more effective in the workplace,” Malhotra said.

During the interview, Malhotra gave several reasons for why the enrollment has steadily dropped.

First, he described how predictable patterns of decline align with business cycles. As the economy improves and the job market opens up, people return to work, making it harder or at least less likely for those same individuals to carve out time in their schedules for higher education.

“When the economy is down, enrollment is up and when the economy is up, our enrollment is down,” he said. “We are counter-cyclical to the business cycle.”

Second, he pointed to changing demographics as another cause for decline.

The Minnesota State sector called the Northeast Higher Education District has an aging population. That area, which includes HCC, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range College, Vermillion Community College and Rainy River Community College, is therefore seeing fewer people graduating from high schools. Naturally, this spills into lower college enrollment numbers.

Despite the decline, many graduates are going directly into fields that are experiencing workforce shortages.

Addressing the skills gap

“Last year we graduated close to 38,000 graduates, out of which two-thirds came from two-year colleges, such as Hibbing Community College,” Malhotra said. “And more importantly, 75 percent of the graduates from our colleges come from what we call career and technical education programs, which address the workforce shortages.”

He added that nearly 19,000 students who graduated from two-year colleges went directly into jobs in healthcare, IT, agriculture, manufacturing and transportation. In other words, fields that are currently in desperate need of new recruits.

In Fiscal Year 2017, the Legislature and former Gov. Mark Dayton awarded Minnesota State $1 million for a pilot project called the “Workforce Development Scholarship,” according to Malhotra. The goal was to attract students for high demand careers in four needed areas as identified by legislators, including: advanced manufacturing, healthcare, agriculture and IT. The money equated to 400 scholarships at $2,500 each, of which NHED received 10.

“Students who received these scholarships during the pilot project, almost 90 percent of them stayed in college and re-enrolled to finish their degree,” Malhotra said, adding that’s almost 25 percent higher than the general population.

The program proved to be a success not only with the would-be workforce but also with employers. So, when Minnesota State representatives returned to the Legislature earlier this year, they received $8 million — $2 million for FY 2020, and $6 million for FY 2021, increasing the number of scholarships available by 268.

“For the upcoming year, we will offer 668 scholarships, and Hibbing will receive 18 of those scholarships,” Malhotra said.

In addition to the four career paths previous identified, two more high demand fields were also added in 2019: early childhood education and transportation. Malhotra also told the HDT that the scholarships open them up to potential students who are “economically fragile.” For them, he said, the workforce scholarships can mean the difference between enrolling in college or not and also being able to complete their degrees.

“Particularly for our low income students, this is even more beneficial because a $2,500 scholarship is going over and above what they could receive in state grants and federal grants,” he said. “For our low income students, it’s possible that they can go get their two-year [degree] from one of our colleges free of any tuition.”

Beginning next summer they’ll have $6 million available, allowing Minnesota State to dole out 2,400 workforce development scholarships. In turn, the number of scholarships awarded to HCC students will also increase.

“More importantly, of all the students who receive these scholarships, while they’re at college, if they decide to go into one of our seven universities, they will get an additional scholarship for one more year,” Malhotra said. “So you can get almost three of your four years toward a degree paid for in terms of tuition for those from low-income families.”

This is a result of the Legislature expanding the program to the universities within the system. So, a student who has been awarded two years worth of scholarships could transfer to a corresponding program at any of the seven universities within Minnesota State and receive a third, bringing the total assistance to $7,500.

It’s an incentive that Malhotra said could have a positive impact on enrollment into HCC. He also shared one of the reasons the Board of Trustees decided to visit HCC was not only to celebrate the campus renovation, but also to get boots on the ground to try and better comprehend what HCC means to the local community and the impacts it has on its members.

“It’s also to understand the challenges these communities are facing and to see firsthand what we need to do to support our colleges and universities so they can be vibrant resources for communities across the state,” Malhotra said. “So I am thrilled to be here.”

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