Technology at the Technical College: Despite Dwindling Resources, Technical Schools Can Use Partnerships and Innovative Technologies to Graduate Workers with More Knowledge and Higher-Level Skills

Article excerpt

JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, TWO-year public colleges had the option of becoming entrepreneurial institutions. No longer. Eroding state support combined with increasing enrollments and demand for greater accountability have forced these schools to seek alternative funding sources and use innovative technologies to reduce costs and improve efficiencies, all while providing greater value to their students and other constituents. My institution, Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical, is no different.

When I first came to the Winona campus 25 years ago, it was a much different institution. It was known then as Winona Technical Institute, and its mission was to provide local students with the workforce skills to fill local jobs. Over the years, my role within the college has changed, just as the institution has evolved. Along the way, we consolidated with Red Wing Technical College in 1992.

I assumed the presidency of the college in 1995, when we were just entering into Minnesota's "mega merger," in which all public two-year community colleges, technical colleges, and universities were merged into one system of governance. This system is called Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

The 1995 merger has made for an interesting transformation. I think what the merger has done for technical colleges in Minnesota is raise our perceived stature. It's helped us discard the old "vo-tech" image and emerge as an equal to our community college peers.

Yes, our mission is still workforce education. In today's world, workforce education has a broader meaning than in 1980. We're likely to be teaching students the basics of pre-med or pre-engineering, offering transfer education, as well as preparing students for careers as auto mechanics, as accountants, or in computer technologies.

Technical and community colleges in Minnesota are open-entry institutions--first come, first served--which means a portion of our entering students need some form of remedial education. Entrance testing indicates that approximately 26 percent of our students need one or more remedial courses; thus many of them take longer than the typical two years to complete their requirements. Our marketing slogan here at Southeast Technical is: "Get in. Get out. Get on with it."

We understand and empathize with students' desire to complete degree requirements as soon as possible. In the last seven years, our tuition has averaged double digit increases, from $78 up to $133 per credit hour. Increasing the amount of time it takes to earn a degree or certification obviously puts an added financial burden on our students.

THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIPS

Our funding history is similar to what other colleges across the nation face. Six or seven years ago, two-thirds of our annual operating budget was funded by state allocation and most of the remainder provided by tuition. At this writing, 47 percent of my college's budget is funded by the state and I suspect that someday that amount will decline to under 40 percent.

Currently, the shift of high tuition and low state assistance is my college's biggest challenge, as this shift is occurring at the same time our enrollment has grown nine out of the last 10 years. From 1998 to 2005, our enrollment increased by 43 percent, making us one of the fastest growing two-year colleges in the Minnesota system.

In order to balance the conundrum of increasing enrollment, dwindling state support, and the need to seek alternative funding streams, we're constantly looking for partnerships--within both the education and business/technology communities--that will enable us to leverage existing dollars and provide greater opportunities for our students to engage in learning.

One way we do this is by taking advantage of the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership, which provides competitive grants for colleges to align with local businesses to help with their training needs. …