An ocean liner would be easier to turn than the behemoth higher-education system MnSCU (pronounced “minn-skew”), short for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. At least a big boat has a single rudder. MnSCU boasts 31 distinct institutions on 54 campuses in 47 cities, serving more than 400,000 degree-seeking or customized training students per year.
That makes the task on which MnSCU leadership has embarked both daunting and commendable. MnSCU is the product of a 1995 merger of state universities, community colleges and technical colleges that was intended to secure the quality higher education that Minnesota’s economy needs, at an affordable price. A process has begun to accelerate MnSCU’s delivery on that promise.
At the instigation of Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, three task forces broadly representative of MnSCU constituencies have produced a wide-ranging series of recommendations for change, in draft form. Collectively called “Charting the Future,” the drafts are intended for dissemination and discussion in the next three months, leading to final recommendations to the MnSCU board of trustees before the year’s end.
As higher education decisionmaking goes, that’s an aggressive timeline. That, too, is praiseworthy. External forces — pinched government funding, for-profit competition, free online courses, the under-preparation of potential students — are buffeting traditional public higher education in ways that will damage those who do not adapt. As Rosenstone has said of the process he started, “It’s hard. But it would be harder to do nothing.”
Through myriad recommendations in the task forces’ 36-page draft report, we see several welcome themes:
• A desire for MnSCU to function as a more unified system. For 18 years, MnSCU has given lip service to coordination among its disparate institutions, and has taken important steps in that direction, particularly in combining back-office operations. But, as the draft report acknowledges, much more can be done to truly operate as one system.
That means that instead of jealously protecting local autonomy regarding academic matters, institutions would yield to the system’s central planners a host of decisions about the size, scope and location of programs. Elimination of unnecessary duplication would be a higher priority. Opportunities for joint program development across multiple institutions would be more vigorously pursued. So would:
• A statewide facilities plan. The draft report does not single out any campuses for downsizing or closure. But it recommends creation of a review process that seems likely to lead to such changes, even as it expands facilities where they are not adequate to student demand.
That move is overdue. More than half of Minnesota’s job growth is in the metro area, while the bulk of Minnesota’s higher-ed capacity, particularly in four-year colleges, is in Greater Minnesota. That misalignment does a disservice to placebound Twin Cities students and, by extension, to the entire state’s economy.
Diminished in the draft is a sense that MnSCU is obliged to shore up the economies of its host communities, something the system openly embraced a dozen years ago. The proliferation of online learning has changed perceptions about who and what must be locally present in order to deliver quality education and serve local employers.
• The call for MnSCU to step up certification of student competencies. Learning is available to students from a growing number of sources and life experiences. But employers are likely to continue to look to higher education to validate individual abilities — and the higher-education institutions that make the most of that role will have a competitive advantage.
MnSCU already offers a special competency certification for military veterans. The draft report wisely urges that competency certification be beefed up for all comers, both to acknowledge prior learning and to demonstrate that the learning delivered in MnSCU classrooms “stuck.”
• The draft also calls for more outreach to diverse communities. It’s good as far as it goes. But it ought to go farther.
As the state’s lowest-cost, most accessible portal for higher education, MnSCU bears particular responsibility for the education of the fastest-growing cohort of Minnesota young adults — lower-income people of color. Too many of those potential college students either did not graduate from high school or are underprepared for college-level study despite holding a diploma. Minnesota cannot afford to let those inadequacies block their paths to productive careers.
MnSCU leaders have worked closely in the past year with Dayton administration officials on high school reforms aimed at better preparing those students. But even if the changes that collaboration produces work like a charm, a large number of today’s 20- and 30-somethings will remain in need of what MnSCU is best-positioned to offer.
The MnSCU board of trustees has said that supplying “extraordinary education for all Minnesotans” is the system’s goal. That must include extraordinary effort in reaching out to underprepared young adults and extraordinary assistance in launching them toward fruitful careers. MnSCU’s reformers seek higher quality. They will best serve Minnesota if they define quality as doing better by the population that only their institutions can serve.