Just when it seems that every bit of Minnesota economic news features the phrase “shortage of skilled workers” comes encouraging word about one Minnesota college’s timely response. Riverland Community College, with campuses in Austin, Owatonna and Albert Lea, has created a degree-completion program tailored for working adults who have earned some college credits but lack a degree.
FlexPace is Riverland’s new online business certificate and degree program. As its name suggests, it allows students to take classes at their own pace. The program is designed as a series of five- or six-week classes intended to be taken sequentially, one class at a time. Students can proceed to the next course in a sequence as soon as they can demonstrate mastery of required content. That allows students to focus on learning what they don’t already know and avoid wasting time and money.
“The idea is a more manageable way to take classes,” said business instructor Deb McManimon, one of the program’s founders. “You can’t expect someone who’s working full time to take classes in a traditional way.”
That approach to college-level learning proved so popular that Riverland doubled the program’s originally intended size from 10 to 20 students in its first year and still turned away about 40 would-be students. Meanwhile, the program has received a $25,000 grant from the Minnesota State system, of which Riverland is a part, to determine whether and how it can be adapted for use on other campuses.
We wish that effort well. Riverland has hit on what looks to be a smart strategy for a state that’s confronting a prolonged shortage of skilled workers: Ramp up the skill level of adults already in the workforce, particularly those who started but did not complete a college degree.
That’s a sizable target population, judging from the graduation data collected by the state Office of Higher Education. Minnesota has long ranked high among states in the share of its high school graduates who enroll in college; last year 70 percent of high school grads went to college the following fall. But among those who enroll at Minnesota State’s four-year universities, fewer than half complete a degree within six years. Similarly, fewer than half of those who enrolled at Minnesota State’s two-year colleges had either graduated or transferred to another institution after three years.
Completion rates are particularly lagging among students of color, the Office of Higher Education added. That suggests a need for sensitivity to the particular needs of those rapidly growing communities as colleges consider how to invite those who once started college to complete work on a degree.
Making it easier for former college students to complete their degrees isn’t all that Minnesota should be doing to shore up the state’s best economic asset — its well-educated workforce — as the baby boomer generation moves into retirement. But bringing programs like FlexPace to existing higher education institutions may be among the easiest strategies to implement and the surest to produce positive results. It ought to be a priority for the state’s higher education policymakers.