– Mustafa Omar graduated from St. Peter High School last spring with a clear goal — earning a degree in petroleum engineering — but only a vague idea about how to achieve it.

"One of the main reasons we are here is to get a good education," said Omar, who grew up in Syria and whose family has roots in Somalia.

Minnesota State University in Mankato felt too big. His hometown school, Gustavus Adolphus College, with its $40,000 annual tuition, he didn't even think about.

That left South Central College, a community and technical college about a dozen miles away. Once he got a car.

After saving enough for a 2009 Chevy Impala, he started classes a month ago. "I like the class sizes. I like the teachers." He hopes to earn an associate degree before transferring to a four-year school.

Courses in English

For years, many of the state's newest immigrants and refugees have been building lives in small Minnesota towns, where they were first lured by jobs in meatpacking plants or other agricultural industries. Now many of them are getting a start in higher education at public institutions, especially at two-year community and technical colleges. They are taking advantage lower tuition, smaller class sizes and a proximity to home — as well as developmental courses in English.

Over a five-year period ending in 2013, the enrollment of Latino students in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system — the state's largest higher education system with seven universities and 24 two-year colleges — increased 35 percent while the enrollment of black or African-American students jumped 41 percent. The two groups account for 37,000 students at MnSCU schools.

While it is unclear how many of these students are from newer immigrant or refugee communities, interviews with teachers and college administrators suggest that these newcomers, and their children, are increasingly gaining a foothold in higher education at the small schools in their midst.

At South Central, Fanah Adam, a student adviser, said the number of students he refers to as "new Americans" jumped from less than 20 in 2009 to about 145 this semester on the college's campuses here and Faribault.

Adam, who was born in Somalia, recruits potential students in seven Minnesota high schools in the area. He visits the schools, speaks at community centers and posts fliers around the towns, emphasizing South Central's size and cost — and its English preparatory courses.

Changing demographics

"I basically tell them, 'It's better for you to start here.' "

Minnesota's changing demographics are evident at several small colleges across the state. Last fall, about 250 Latino students showed up for a college fair at Riverland Community College's campus in Owatonna. At Ridgewater College, the number of students identified as black or African-American on its campuses in Willmar and Hutchinson rose from 86 in 2009 to 181 in 2013. The number of Latino students rose from 198 to 216. Combined, the two groups comprise 7 percent of enrollment.

In North Mankato, the trend is striking. Ameera Alhamidi, a refugee from Iraq who has lived in the United States for about three years, chose South Central after a friend recommended it — in part because she could get help with English. She added: "It's just easier to start here. It's not like [Minnesota State], where it is so big. I would be lost there."

Gregg Aamot is a former reporter for the Associated Press and the author of "The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees." He is a journalism and English instructor at Ridgewater College.