Battleship MnSCU began to turn last week. As with any superliner, the initial change was almost imperceptible. But if the new direction set Wednesday by its governing board holds for the next several years, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system stands to do a better job delivering the most vital ingredient to the state’s future prosperity — more and better educated workers.
The new strategic plan, called “Charting the Future,” has the range and ambition befitting a big system with a big challenge. The latest projection by Georgetown University says that by the end of this decade, 74 percent of Minnesota’s jobs will require more than a high school diploma. That’s up from 69 percent today. That next 5-percentage-point boost won’t come easily. The state Office of Higher Education foresees little growth in high school graduates through the rest of this decade. The only growth in the ranks of 18- to 24-year-olds will be in segments of the population that have not been graduating from high school at levels close to Minnesota’s average.
Minnesotans look to their colleges and universities, and especially to MnSCU, to satisfy the economy’s workforce demands. MnSCU leaders could have responded to that challenge by defending the status quo, blaming the K-12 system, or asking taxpayers or tuition payers for more money. It did none of those things. Instead, Chancellor Steven Rosenstone and the board of trustees assigned a series of work groups to collect ideas and input from hundreds of stakeholders in the last year around the question: What can we do differently to ensure access, shore up quality and stay affordable to all Minnesotans?
Their recommendations, which now have the force of MnSCU policy, are geared to produce a more efficient and effective educational engine. The vision:
• Curricula will be better coordinated throughout the system, giving more students the benefit of best practices, wider access to courses, and a guarantee that they can move seamlessly from one MnSCU institution to another. Nasty surprises about course credits that cannot transfer within the system should become a bad memory.
• Students will graduate not only with traditional degrees but also with certification of the skills and competencies they acquired. Competency certification will not be dependent on time spent in class, allowing students the opportunity to gain validation of their life experiences and to hasten degree completion.
• More online instruction will be available, and all 430,000 students will have more exposure to technology-enhanced pedagogy.
• Educational support will be better tailored to the circumstances of students from underserved populations and part-time adult learners.
• The system’s 54 campuses will combine back-office functions to achieve cost-saving efficiencies.
• Academic programs will work as partners with Minnesota businesses to build employee skills and solve real-world business problems.
• A new funding model will emerge that tamps down competition for students within the system and instead rewards colleges and universities for student success.
Some steps have already been taken in these directions. MnSCU board members touted the cost-saving potential of the system’s new Campus Service Cooperative for shared business practices and procurement; Rosenstone praised a 15-college collaboration that is offering high-quality online classes for early childhood teachers.
But much effort lies ahead for students, administrators and particularly faculty if “Charting the Future” is to live up to its transformative potential. A few months ago, faculty resistance to what was perceived as excessive centralization in an earlier draft of the plan threatened to derail it. Changes ensued to emphasize voluntary collaboration over central control. Those changes were sufficient for the state universities faculty union president Nancy Black to bless the new plan with tentative praise. “The core of ‘Charting the Future’ is solid,” she said.
Maintaining faculty trust and involvement is critical to the success of any plan for change in higher education. As this plan enters its implementation phase, MnSCU’s administration should commit to a high degree of transparency and faculty participation.
But MnSCU’s faculty should understand that they share a mission to serve Minnesota, in institutions that are accountable to the public. If they prove unwilling to take steps of MnSCU’s choosing to better meet the state’s workforce challenge, the Legislature has the power to dictate change of its own devising. Enlightened self-interest — and Minnesota’s interest — lies in the direction of constructive voluntary collaboration among academicians to meet “Charting the Future’s” goals.