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MnSCU's challenges, and plans to meet them: A Q&A with Chancellor Rosenstone

Courtesy of MnSCU
Steven Rosenstone

Talk about your economic engines: An eye-popping 58 percent of Minnesota undergraduates attend one of the 31 member institutions of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MnSCU). After receiving a degree or certificate on one of its 54 campuses, 80 percent stay in Minnesota.

Arguably, it’s the most powerful implement in the state’s work-force preparation toolkit, providing a full range of academic offerings as well as incredibly specialized cutting-edge technology programs to some 400,000 students a year. You care about its future even if you never matriculate in one of its colleges or universities.

When he was appointed MnSCU chancellor two years ago, Steven Rosenstone was tasked with making the network a true system. To that end, MnSCU’s trustees were set this afternoon to approve an ambitious six-point plan [PDF] to make its institutions more accessible and affordable for students and more valuable to the state’s employers.

Highlights include making it easier for students to take courses on multiple campuses, transfer and earn credits from more than one member institution and for Minnesota businesses to request custom training.

Earlier this week Rosenstone discussed with MinnPost the challenges facing MnSCU and the strategic plan for surmounting them. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

MinnPost: You’re talking about building a much more seamless, cohesive system. Can you talk about the impetus?

Steven Rosenstone: Well, first and foremost we need this for our students. Thirty-seven percent of the students who get an associate’s degree and 57 percent of the students who get a baccalaureate degree in our system attend more than one of our institutions. So, from the student’s point of view, how do we make sure that that experience is seamless? That credits transfer and we are helping them to accomplish what they need to be prepared for work, for careers, for the next steps they are trying to take?

Second, resources are scarce. We have to be extraordinarily good stewards of both the resources we get from the people of Minnesota and the resources our students are providing us. There are things they we can be doing together that would leverage those resources more powerfully. Whether it’s how we buy paper, how we process payroll, how we plan the academic programs we have, the facilities we need and how we employ technology to meet the needs of our faculty and students.

We’re a place where there is opportunity for all Minnesotans to be successful — successful in their careers, successful with their families, successful in their communities. We’re very clear on the commitments we’ve made to follow through on that core value: a commitment first to providing access to an extraordinary education for all Minnesotans.

Second, a commitment to being the partner of choice for meeting all of Minnesota’s community and work-force needs. And third, to be the highest value, most affordable higher-education option in the state.

That being said, we’re facing some pretty profound changes and challenges. Changes in who our students are, where they are living, in their financial wherewithal. Huge changes in the diversity of our students. Changes in their technological sophistication. Many more students need to go part time. They’re older, they’re working, they’re coming to us to retool for new careers.

And we’re facing huge changes in the work force. By 2020, 74 percent of all Minnesotans are going to need some form of post-secondary education to be prepared for the jobs that need to be done. And being prepared for a career is a whole lot different than it was a decade ago. How are we going to turn out the number of grads that Minnesota needs to be financially successful?

There are challenges we face about the pipeline of students we get, their preparedness for higher education. And there are a lot of funding shifts that have occurred over the last decade.

MP: The report [PDF] suggests it will be easier for students to gain access to the entire system regardless of which campus they may actually be physically attached to. How will that work?

SR: Imagine that you have access to all of the campuses in the metro area, not just your own. Imagine that you have an adviser who can advise you on where the best courses are for your needs. Imagine you have one adviser you keep as you move from a two-year college to a university.

Imagine that we continue to push for technology that makes all of this accessible to you no matter where you happen to live. Imagine that we are going to continue to push on the affordability by doing some of our backroom operations more efficiently in a way that allows us to hold down the cost of tuition.

MP: Technology helps enable all of this?

SR: When the system was first formed, in the summer of 1995 when the board had its first meeting, Amazon.com sold its very first book. They were still debating the standard for the DVD. We now have teams of people working collaboratively who are not in the same place as one another. They’re all over the state, working through the cloud as a team.

Some think this is just a Trojan horse for more centralization. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. The opposite of decentralization is not centralization, it’s coordination and collaboration.

Look, for example, at our campus service co-op, which is now putting together teams to buy things together, as opposed to everybody buying their own stuff, and figuring out how we process payroll more efficiently.

None of that service co-op is being run out of my office. It’s a collaborative run by eight [MnSCU] presidents, put together by eight of our colleges, where the mantra is, “One team, many campuses.” That is the secret, I believe, to getting things done for our state.

MP: I’m struck by how high tech you need many of your programs to be.

SR: For every doctor at Mayo there are 10 health professionals that back up that doc. Those health professionals are doing everything from interacting with patients to doing all of the data systems that are now associated with health care, to maintaining the equipment that is monitoring our bodies. When 3M builds its new research facility, for every Ph.D. there are going to be 10 to 20 folks running that lab.

When a manufacturing firm wants to expand, it’s not getting more people with wrenches in their hands, it’s getting more people who drive the controllers that run the robotics. And when we look at some of the top companies in Minnesota, like UnitedHealth or US Bank, the biggest needs they have right now are for technology folks, whether it’s analytics, whether it’s data security.

So we either in our colleges and universities give our students access to the facilities and the technologies and the equipment that’s necessary to prepare them for those careers or we have a problem in Minnesota not having the workers necessary. So our focus is very much on making sure we have the most talented faculty and the most up-to-date equipment in our facilities.

For example if you go to Minneapolis Community and Technical College, we just opened a new health sciences facility where students spend a huge amount of time in simulations with mannequins that breathe, sweat, defecate, vomit and react to the meds that you’re giving them. These are $130,000 mannequins that are essential to giving students the realistic experiences they need to be prepared to work in an ICU and to care for patients.

It’s absolutely essential to give students the experiences they need to compete, and that Minnesota needs to compete, to keep those jobs in Minnesota. The key to keeping Minnesota prosperous is its human capital. There’s nothing else that comes even close. That’s one of our core responsibilities as a system of colleges and universities.

Between now and 2040, in the Twin Cities metro there will be close to 1 million more people. There will be fewer white, non-Hispanic people in the metro area than there are today; 100 percent of the population growth is people of color.

We simply cannot afford to leave anyone behind. We have to make sure we have a system of education from pre-K to post-graduate that allows every single person to realize and contribute their full potential for themselves, for their families and for our state.  

We need to figure out more powerful ways to address the achievement gap, to ensure that people with fewer financial means have a pathway to higher education and to keep it affordable. Not every single one of that 74 percent of jobs requires a baccalaureate degree, but those jobs that don’t will require associates degrees and certificates. If we don’t prepare people with those qualifications we are condemning them to a life of poverty, which is unacceptable from a social point of view and economically disastrous for the state of Minnesota.

For us as a system of colleges and universities the bigger question is how we collaborate with K-12, collaborate with communities to make sure everyone is prepared to move ahead. We have a wonderful partnership with Brenda Cassellius, the state commissioner of education. With help from the Legislature and the governor we redesigned the relationship between secondary and post-secondary education in legislation passed last year.

We aligned assessments so that in the eighth, ninth and 11th grades students will be taking an assessment that’s normed with college readiness. If they’re not on course for college — second point of the plan — we’re going to remove their remedial and developmental education back into the high schools, with the goal that everybody leaves high school college ready.

The third part of the plan: If you are college ready you get to start college early. We want to grow the opportunity for students to get college credit. That’s a huge help on affordability. That’s a huge help on using the state’s resources more effectively. A huge help for kids who might be bored either because they want to learn technical things and their school doesn’t offer them or because they are high flyers in math and there’s no AP class in their high school.

The fourth part of the plan is, everybody has to have a plan that takes their passions, interests and dreams and connects them to careers.

The same with work-force issues: We’re in very deep collaboration with employers throughout the state through the Itasca Project to figure out what the needs will be in the future and how best to meet those needs with programs that have the qualities and the capabilities graduates should have.

MP: There’s a component of the report that has to do with providing customized training.

SR: In addition to educating the students who come into our academic programs we serve about 120,000 people a year in customized training programs, most of them off-site at a company and hand-tailored to the needs of that company. The proposal is to really scale that up, to draw on our power to work together to deliver more powerful results. Because as crazy as we think the pace of change has been in the last decade, well, it’s going to exponentially be faster.

What the recommendations have suggested is that rather than every college or university having its own customized training program or continuing education program — frequently going head-to-head with another college or university competing for a contract with a particular company — that we’d have a way to leverage the full capabilities of our faculty.

So if I have a relationship with a particular company, for example, I might not just bring the things that I’m good at, I’d also bring with me in my briefcase, “Well if that’s what you need, St. Paul Technical College is the expert in that, let me hook you up with them.” Or if we go to a large company that has a broad set of needs it may take the broad capabilities of our faculty around the state to deliver.

The ability to keep companies at the leading edge, to help people retool for new careers, to deal with changes in technology, to deal with all the innovations that are going to come at us with fire-hose force ... we need to be very agile at helping workers and employers adjust.

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