Guest Opinion: Reimagining Minnesota State
Along with emerging technologies and the changing nature of work, perhaps the most profound changes occurring within higher education relate to the very students we serve at the colleges and universities of Minnesota State. Driven by powerful demographic, generational, social, and economic forces, changing student populations are bringing different backgrounds, experiences, and needs to our campuses. Effectively responding to our current and future students will require system-wide innovation to empower our faculty and staff to creatively respond to their changing expectations.
Consider what most people think of as traditional college students: 18-22 years old, attending full time, living on campus, and financially dependent on their parents. It turns out that these "traditional" students make up only 15-17 percent of today's college students, and even these traditional students are changing. Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2012, is the most diverse of any past generation, and includes more first-generation and low-income students than ever before. As children of the Great Recession, they are much more concerned about the cost of college and are more focused on the value and relevance of a degree.
While providing a high quality education to our young people immediately after high school is a critical responsibility of our colleges and universities, the majority of students served by Minnesota State and public higher education systems across the country do not fit the definition of the "traditional" student.
Our "post-traditional" learners tend to be older, attend part time, work full time, are financially independent, and often have dependents of their own. They are looking to higher education to provide opportunities for social and economic mobility for themselves and their families. These students come with their own needs and expectations for how higher education institutions can assist them in achieving their personal and professional goals.
Consistent with these national trends, Minnesota State students are demographically and economically diverse:
• 26 percent are American Indian or students of color
• 34 percent are 25 or older
• 9,700 are veterans
• 31 percent are low-income (Pell-eligible)
• 18 percent are first in their families to attend college
• 49 percent are from underrepresented groups
• 60 percent of college and 37 percent of university students are enrolled part-time
• 9 percent enroll at more than one college or university in a year
• 48 percent take one or more online courses and 16 percent are entirely online
We are also seeing the impact of income disparities, as increasing numbers of students are struggling to manage the cost of higher education and are battling issues of housing and food insecurity as they are trying to improve their economic position through education. Given this rich diversity of students and their more complex enrollment patterns and support needs, we are recognizing that historical approaches to program delivery that have worked for past generations of students may not work as well for our changing student populations.
At the heart of Reimagining Minnesota State is a recognition that as our students and their needs and expectations change, we must respond in ways that put their success at the center of our system. These efforts are pushing us to anticipate how we might better leverage technologies, differentiate our approaches to program delivery, expand partnerships to support experiential learning and investment, and breakdown barriers that have made successfully completing a degree more difficult for some segments of our student population, including students of color, low-income and first-generation students, and adult learners.
We are also recognizing that no one model of program delivery or one institution has the capacity or resources to serve the different needs represented by this rich diversity of students. The power of the Minnesota State system is that no one institution needs to. Through Reimagining Minnesota State, we are challenging ourselves to think about how our seven universities and 30 colleges can create a more integrated system of educational opportunities that create multiple pathways for our students to move seamlessly to their next level of education and their next level of career, regardless of location.
How can we continue to provide high quality degrees and credentials but in more personalized and flexible ways? How do we remove barriers to access and success for students with the greatest need? How can we create more transparent navigation across the Minnesota State system that provides our students with the benefit of access to a high quality, relevant education in their community while also having access to the full resources of the Minnesota State system? These are the challenging questions we are attempting to answer through Reimagining Minnesota State. If we are successful, we will reduce educational, income, and social disparities and move the dial on important educational and economic outcomes that are critical to the future success of Minnesota and our students.
Michael Vekich is chair of the Board of Trustees of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Devinder Malhotra serves as chancellor.