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Point of pride for Minnesota

Date Published: 09/07/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

St. Paul College and two-year campuses in Greater MN dominate "Best Community Colleges in U.S." rankings

Some refreshingly good news about the quality of our public education system almost got out last week, but was mostly overlooked or underplayed by mainstream media.

In a recent ranking of the nation’s top community colleges by Washington Monthly magazine, Minnesota placed SEVEN colleges in the top 50. To put that in perspective, with less than 2 percent of the nation’s population, we have 14 percent of its very best two-year colleges.

The Harvard in the group and ranked first overall was St. Paul College, a venerable school with a century of history, located between the state Capitol and the St. Paul Cathedral.

St. Paul College was celebrated in the magazine, in an article entitled “Shakespeare with Power Tools,” for its inspired blend of liberal arts and vocational learning, and an astounding percentage of students who work with instructors on activities outside the classroom.

The six other top-ranked colleges are all in Greater Minnesota: Itasca Community College (#5, in Grand Rapids); Leech Lake Tribal College (#7, on the Leech Lake reservation, and the only top-ranked school not part of the public Minnesota State Colleges and Universities [MnSCU] system); Alexandria Technical College (#8, in Alexandria) ; Minnesota West (#30, in Pipestone); MSCTC (#37, in Fergus Falls); and Vermillion Community College (#43, in Ely).

Itasca’s provost, Mike Johnson, attributes the Grand Rapids success to “very intentional efforts to put more value in place.”

While other two-year colleges have been understandably rushing to beef up online learning, Itasca’s faculty and staff have gone against the grain and worked harder on making the scenic little campus in the woods a “real gem of the north” – a place where students want to be, Johnson said, noting this is a value prized by many prestigious private four-year colleges.

These colleges, many of them offering a blend of vocational degrees and traditional two-year associate degrees that transfer to four-year colleges, were highly ranked on a combination of six categories: graduation rates, academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student effort, support for learning, and student-faculty interaction.

The rankings are drawn from a combination of U.S. Department of Education records on graduation rates and responses to the national Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

This kind of news excites me particularly, I must admit, because I am a grateful product of a two-year public college in our southeastern suburbs, Inver Hills Community College.

It was the most affordable option available to me when I finished my service in the U.S. Navy in 1973. I transferred and got my B.A. at the University of St. Thomas and later studied for a year at Stanford University on a mid-career journalism sabbatical.
The excellence of those latter schools is well documented, and they are celebrated and well funded by successful alumni and benefactors. But the inspirational teachers at Inver Hills were every bit as impressive and effective as any I encountered later – and probably more influential on my eventual success.

The list of distinguished Americans over the years who have attended or graduated from community colleges is eye-catching: fashion designer Calvin Klein; billionaire and presidential candidate Ross Perot; actors Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood; entertainment mogul Walt Disney; broadcaster Jim Lehrer; astronaut Eileen Collins; former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick; author/poets Rita Mae Brown and Gwendolyn Brooks; and business leaders such as James Sinegal (CostCo) and Melvin Salveson, creator of the MasterCard.

Two-year colleges clearly are underrated and a tremendous value, but people are figuring it out. Most of these colleges in Minnesota are bulging at the seams, with healthy enrollment growth caused in part by the recession; the schools themselves are doing a better job of getting students through to completion.

But graduation rates remain disappointing: Even at St. Paul College, the percentage of students who complete a degree within four years hovers at about 40 percent.

But more good news on that front came in a MinnPost article last week that featured Inver Hills and its “Finish What You Start” campaign that strongly emphasizes timely completion of degree credentials.

Retention rates from the first year to the second year are beginning to improve for MnSCU, by a full two percentage points, according to Leslie Mercer, the system’s associate vice-chancellor.

At least three other important lessons can be drawn from this outbreak of good news in these hard times.

One: This is a splendid talking point for countering the constant disparagement of Minnesota’s state and local government and the public sector and the taxes those things require – especially during this election campaign. In Minnesota, we typically outclass most other states with most of our public goods and services, and here we go again. I’m reminded of a very intelligent conservative who confided to me some 25 years ago that it was hard to generate anti-government zeal in Minnesota, mainly because our governments worked too well here.

Two: This Greater Minnesota success should give pause to the would-be government-cutters in the next session’s deep budget crisis who’ll inevitably propose we close campuses, especially outside the Twin Cities metro.

Three: At a time when our organization and others are working to get the next governor and Legislature to make higher education attainment the number-one priority for state government in Minnesota, it’s a great selling point to observe that our own public institutions are among the very best places in the nation to send more and more of our high-school graduates.
 

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Tuesday, September 7, 2010.

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.


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