Major steps are being taken this fall to fill in a long-standing gap in higher education in the southwest metro.

As their own enrollments slide, the nearest community colleges to western Dakota and Scott counties are moving to claim potential clients.

The biggest initiative is that of Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights, which is opening what it’s calling a new branch campus in Burnsville this fall.

“We are really excited because there is no higher ed in that region of the Twin Cities,” said the school’s new provost, Christina Royal. “We felt like there was a real need.”

Meanwhile, from its home base Bloomington, Normandale Community College is taking steps to strengthen its presence along the Minnesota River, in Chaska and Shakopee, by adding new course offerings.

And St. Paul’s Concordia University, which claimed a foothold in Burnsville a few years back, continues to train teachers at what it considers its own satellite campus there.

“We hold graduate education cohorts onsite there,” said spokesman Tad Dunham, “and will be starting another Master of Arts in Education Reading cohort at that location in September.”

Even the two Dakota County sites are just a minute or two from the border of Scott County, which is arguably the least well-served county in the metro considering all its growth.

“Higher ed is something that has been on Scott County’s wish list for years,” said Mark Jacobs, director of the Dakota-Scott Workforce Investment Board. “The Burnsville campus is not exactly in Scott but is only a mile away and will help. And Inver Hills is talking about something within Scott itself, though that’s still just in the conversation stage.”

Royal confirmed that. “We have had some discussions in Scott but our focus is primarily on making Burnsville successful. Once that happens, then I think there’s an opportunity to expand further.”

That could cause some competitive eyebrow-raising at Normandale, which considers suburbs south of the river a major draw.

“Inver Hills is our sister institution,” said Matt Crawford, enrollment director at Normandale. “And they are bringing to Burnsville a system of educational delivery that we currently don’t offer: an accelerated approach, meeting adult needs. And that’s great.

“That said, a lot of people come to us from Burnsville and other cities nearby and are not considering the river a barrier to their psyches. Burnsville itself is our No. 3 community for students to come from. Shakopee is No. 5. Lakeville is 6. Savage is 7. Prior Lake is tenth. We get a lot of students from those areas. And though it’s very small, we have a center at Shakopee High School teaching a few liberal arts courses as well as health care.”

In liberal arts terms, there’s nothing between Bloomington and far-off Mankato, a gap that has caused a lot of discussion in both Scott and Carver counties as they’ve grown.

In 2007, in fact, the Star Trib­une reported that the “Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is planning to put a higher education facility along a stretch of Hwy. 169 between Mankato and Interstate Hwy. 494 as soon as 2008” — a plan that never came to anything.

By then a cry had gone up that Minnesota had too many campuses, with lots of empty desks in remote, often aging and dwindling outposts in places like Canby. There wasn’t a lot of appetite to install another big bureaucracy.

Today, though, lots of inner-metro suburbs are aging, and suburban community colleges seeing drops in student numbers are clearly prospecting for new customers in locations a bit distant from their homes.

“You are exactly right about that,” Crawford said. “We saw a boom from ’02 to ’09 or ’10 and then enrollment from our traditional markets dropped off. We have to look at new emerging markets with different needs, including immigrant groups.”

Technology also argued against new bricks-and-mortar campuses: Online teaching was growing.

“About 25 percent of what we do is online,” said Inver Hills’ Royal, “and that will grow. We have blended formats with more and more students taking an online component so they can come here just one day a week instead of two.”

That said, Jacobs expects that the flood of new employers heading for Shakopee will heighten an urgency to do more higher ed there, since it’s not just where students live that counts for two-year schools, it’s also where they work.