Enrollment’s up at NE Minnesota community colleges

Vermilion CC graduates
Members of the class of 2008 celebrate after commencement ceremonies at Vermilion Community College in Ely.

TWO HARBORS, Minn. — New programs and a faltering national economy are combining to boost enrollment at community colleges in Northeastern Minnesota. And even as the mining industry stumbles this summer, many students are thinking long-term when it comes to the going to work in taconite.

Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids is offering a new, four-year engineering degree on the Iron Range so students don’t have to leave at all, said Provost Mike Johnson. “Really, the classroom is the mines and engineering firms and the wood products companies” for the final two years of the program, Johnson said. The 15 slots available for the program, which starts up this fall, went very quickly, he said.

The students will go through two years of engineering courses and then work with engineers throughout the region for the final two years.

“Instead of a lab at the college, they’ll actually, for example, work two-week blocks at Minntac with engineers there, and get practical, hands-on experience,” Johnson said. Minnesota State University-Mankato is partnering with the program and will award the bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering to students who complete the program.

“It’s one of those things, you’ve got to do it now, because if you look ahead, there’s lots of opportunities with people retiring — and if these projects, even a third of them, come through, there’s going to be just a ton of jobs,” Johnson said. Because of the retirements and industrial expansion and new development on the Iron Range, up to 300 engineers will be needed in the next 10 years.

Tough economic times can mean good news and bad news for community colleges. As more people are laid off, they look to community colleges for retraining in other lines of work. On the other hand, when people are laid off, they don’t always have the money to pay for course credits.

Power-generation program is popular
Johnson said Itasca’s new two-year power-generation program has been popular as well, and interest is being driven by unemployed people looking to retrain. “We haven’t marketed it much yet — it exceeded its enrollment goal before any marketing, and a lot of it is people who don’t have work.”

When the Blandin paper mill laid off hundreds of people several years ago, Johnson said, “we saw an increase [in enrollment] there. But now, it’s a case of not just the spouse gets laid off, both spouses get laid off. People just don’t have the money. And our foundation is getting hit just like everybody else.”

Dr. Tina Royer, provost of Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in Virginia, said Mesabi is seeing an increase in enrollment as well.

“We’re up 4 percent over the year before, and it will be even greater this coming fall,” she said. “Much of our increase is occurring in technical programs, so there’s a huge expansion of growth in those programs.” She said they were designed to get students entry-level ready for a profession — such as masonry, carpentry, licensed-practitioner nursing, and millwrighting — after one or two years.

More nontraditional students
Royer said the college is seeing more nontraditional students enrolling. “We’re still at a point at Mesabi where the majority of students are traditional college-age, but we’re starting to see certainly a greater influx of older, career-changing students.”

One of the biggest draws, Royer said, is the college’s new wind-technician program.

“We’re getting a half-dozen emails and calls a day, and many of them already have their bachelor’s degree,” she said. “They haven’t all applied yet, but there’s tremendous interest.”

Royer agreed that a down economy can be good and bad for community colleges. “It’s a mixed blessing in that we usually see an increase in enrollment — and that’s a national trend — but at the same time, we’re facing budget cuts just like other businesses, and so it really is more about doing more with less to serve more.”

Community colleges often have to fight stereotypes, and that can lead to challenges in marketing. “But people who work in community tech colleges are people who really see … it’s not ivory-tower thinking that you might find at research universities. So we respond much faster to community and student needs because that’s how we’re set up.”

Rainy River Community College, in International Falls, has traditionally been a liberal arts school with a strong emphasis in nursing, said Johnson, who is also a provost at Rainy River. But the college is starting up a green, sustainable construction program in conjunction with International Falls High School.

“Enrollment has been down, but we’re doing a fairly significant amount of work on the dormitory on campus and other projects,” Johnson said. “We’re positive that things are going to go in the right direction.”

Applications up at Vermilion in Ely
Vermilion Community College in Ely has seen applications rise, said Jeff Nelson, director of enrollment and student services. “We are ahead of last year,” he said. The college specializes in natural-resource education. “The students who come here — they want to be a game warden or get into forestry or water resources,” he said.

Vermilion draws from a wider-reaching population and does not have programs that are dependent on the community it’s in, Nelson said, and because of that, “our sister colleges like Mesabi and Hibbing have a truer sense of the economic picture.

“Students come here for an education in a career, or because they have a connection to the Ely area” such as family or a vacation home, Nelson said.

Applications are have risen in water-resource programs and law enforcement, Nelson said.

“The water-resource applications might be a bit of an economic thing — it’s a program that’s good for the environment, combined with a good career. Law-enforcement jobs, though, are harder to come by, because state, city and county budgets are tighter. But we have a rush of students interested in that.”

Nelson said that because a lot of government jobs dealing with the environment were created through environmental protection acts about 30 years ago, a wave of retirements is creating vacancies. “It’s a good thing … there’s a clear opportunity in those types of jobs.

“There are students who want an outdoor career path, but they don’t have a good model. There are lots of opportunities to be had, and we need to do a better job of identifying them.”

“We’re all growing, and I think it’s a testament to how we are so closely aligned to communities,” Royer said. “And that’s gratifying.”

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