Dakota County Technical College (DCTC) is considering offering four-year technical degrees to help Minnesotans with two-year degrees advance their careers and fill what employers say is a gap in highly skilled workers.

DCTC would offer bachelor’s degrees combining advanced technical skills and two years of general and liberal education courses, similar to what is provided by polytechnic universities like the University of Wisconsin-Stout — one model for DCTC’s new degrees.

“We kept hearing from [employers] that they were sending a lot of their students over to Stout to get that advanced degree,” said Scott Determan, DCTC dean of transportation, industry and information technology. “We said, well, what if we started offering something like that?”

A task force identified a need for programs in information technology, transportation management and industry management, which includes trades like welding. If all goes as planned, the programs would start in the fall of 2019.

“This is an area that hasn’t been an easy fit for any school, so we think we’ve really grabbed onto a need,” said DCTC president Tim Wynes.

Administrators foresee challenges, including a lengthy approval process involving the Minnesota State Board of Trustees, Chancellor Stephen Rosenstone, the Legislature and the Higher Learning Commission, a group that accredits degree-granting colleges in the Midwest.

The idea isn’t without critics. Some say DCTC shouldn’t change its focus on two-year technical programs when other Minnesota State institutions could easily offer the degrees.

“I think the need for applied baccalaureate [degrees] is real,” said Anne Weyandt, dean of the College for Adults at St. Catherine University and former president of Anoka Technical College. Even so, Weyandt said, “I’m not so sure you need a mission change at a two-year college to accomplish that form of education.”

DCTC administrators say that creating the new programs wouldn’t alter their mission of helping students find workplace success.

“It’s an enhancement for us — it’s not a big leap,” Wynes said.

Building careers

The idea of creating polytechnic programs at a Minnesota State school isn’t new, Weyandt said, and it seems to come up every decade.

For DCTC, Wynes said, an initial suggestion was to offer four-year degrees through Stout, but collaborating across state lines was daunting.

There are at least 35,000 students in the metro area with terminal two-year degrees, Wynes said, and few of their credits would likely transfer to a four-year university, especially if they have an Associate of Applied Science degree. The new programs could provide a seamless path for those students to earn a bachelor’s degree, Wynes said.

And the southern suburbs are a fast-growing part of the state with many manufacturing jobs. Companies like Amazon and Shutterfly in Scott County need people to manage production lines, Determan said.

Thomson Reuters in Eagan looks for workers with technology know-how who are flexible, professional and want to keep learning, said Liz Drake, talent acquisition director at Thomson Reuters.

A four-year degree incorporating internships with technical and soft skills “is really a differentiator in the marketplace,” Drake said.

DCTC administrators will finish researching the three possible degree programs and likely bring their proposal to the chancellor this spring, Determan said.

A survey shows that about half of current faculty members are qualified to teach in a four-year program, Determan said, and the college will work with the remaining faculty to get them up to speed.

DCTC already has enough lab and classroom space, Determan said, and the extra students could help reverse a trend of declining enrollment.

“This is a way for us to grow our student population and in theory, kind of help us be financially stable in the future,” Determan said.