Higher ed commissioner visits SMSU

MARSHALL – The dream of pursuing higher education will become more of a reality for many students in Minnesota if Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed budget is approved.

“It’s good news that Dayton has chosen to invest in higher education,” said Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller.

Pogemiller came to Southwest Minnesota State University Wednesday to share Dayton’s budget recommendations for higher education and to listen to what area post-secondary students had to say about their expectations and experiences.

“It’s okay to talk to presidents, but the governor really wants me to talk with students and listen to you about what’s going on in terms of quality, in terms of access, in terms of ability to pay, in terms of workforce issues and any other issues you’re thinking about,” Pogemiller said. “The governor and I speak frequently, and he absolutely wants to know what I’m hearing from you.”

Dayton’s proposed $240 million investment for higher education is the largest increase for any area of the state budget. The amount is about 10 percent over the base of any area, Pogemiller said, noting that Dayton plans to divide the money in three ways.

“As you probably know, all states have had deficits,” Pogemiller said. “Minnesota still does have a deficit, but Dayton is recommending tax increases large enough to both take care of the deficit and also to strategically invest in education. It’s his highest level of investment.”

Roughly $80 million is proposed to be invested at the University of Minnesota to support research and to help freeze tuition rates. The amount would fund 87.3 percent of the $91.6 million request.

Dayton recommended another $80 million investment for the Minnesota State Grant program, which would be the largest increase in direct student aid in 25 years.

“About 95,000 students currently get state grants,” Pogemiller said. “This would expand it by 5,000 more students.”

Approximately 2,000 of those additional students would be students from middle income families, those with incomes between $60,000-$120,000. There would also be an average increase of $300 for every student on state aid and as much as $1,450 for some students, Pogemiller said.

Pogemiller also noted that while there isn’t additional funding available right now, long-term plans are to provide some type of assistance for independent students, those who are over age 24 or who have children.

The final part of Dayton’s proposal allows $80 million for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, directed into three areas, the first of which is increasing the number of internships and apprenticeships that are available to students.

“What I’ve been hearing from students is that unless they have work experience, it’s hard to get the kind of jobs they are looking for,” Pogemiller said. “So, to get that experience through an internship or apprenticeship during school, particularly if it pays, is a plus.”

An additional investment of $26 million is geared toward leveraged equipment, which Pogemiller described as machinery in the classroom that is necessary for students to stay up to date with what the workforce is actually doing. Again, that amount would be matched dollar for dollar, he said.

The third area at MnSCU is to help retain high-quality faculty.

“There’s been a four- or five-year freeze on salaries, and there’s a growing concern that to keep the work force you need at these institutions, some type of increase is necessary,” Pogemiller said.

Minnesota West Community and Technical College students Keith Boysen and Calvin Kilby, who are both majoring in computer support and telecommunications, shared their thoughts at the regional student forum Wednesday.

“I chose MnWest because there aren’t too many places that offer telecommunication, and I really wanted to get into that,” Boysen said. “But then we’re also running into some obstacles because it’s a newer program. One of the things we would really like to get is a fusion splicer because that’s something you need to learn. It’s fiber-optic, which is the new way. But we don’t have access to that right now.”

Boysen said he isn’t aware of many internship opportunities, but he has had a few job-shadowing experiences. Though he currently has about $17,000 in student debt, he’s optimistic about finding a good job after graduation.

“I’ve had to take out loans for living expenses, but the Pell Grant and the State Grant have helped me out a lot. They paid my full tuition,” he said.

Kilby pointed out that since telecommunications is fairly new in the area, students may have to relocate to find jobs.

“I’m pretty sure, depending on which field I do, I’ll have a job,” Kilby said. “We might wind up moving to bigger cities or even different states if we have to, though.”

SMSU junior Caleb Ellingson estimated that he’ll have about $10,000 in student debt when he graduates, which he feels is reasonable.

“I took out a US Bank loan for $3,000 and then paid $2,000 out of the pocket,” he said. “I’m not too nervous about paying those off because I feel like with my degree, I’ll be able to get a decent-paying job after school. I feel like the job market is looking pretty good for finance majors.”

Senior Kyle Berndt, president of the SMSU Student Association, had an unpaid internship this past summer with the city of Marshall.

“It went pretty well,” he said. “One of the things I was doing was developing internships for them, for how they were going to approach students and get them to come in.”

In doing research, Berndt found that there was a lack of connections within the community.

“There was a huge disconnect between the community and SMSU in that aspect of internship opportunities, and even within the city of Marshall,” he said. “But currently, it’s being undertaken by the Chamber of Commerce. They have this group of people who are working on developing internship opportunities, to bridge the gaps between businesses and what they’re looking for in students and what they want for internships.”

Berndt said paid internships would likely motivate students more, but he also believes that students should pursue opportunities in order to obtain job skills.

“Almost every application I filled out asks what my prior experience is in that field,” he said. “I have none because I’m just getting done with college.”

Berndt also shared his disapproval about the way the money is balanced between the U of M and the MnSCU system.

“I understand that the U of M has a very important purpose in Minnesota, but when you look at the number of students, they’re at 80,000 while we’re at 35-40,000. We have 80,000 students in the state colleges alone. But we’re getting funded so much less. It not only hurts the state colleges, but it hurts the two-year ones as well because all that money is divided between us,” he said.

Josh Anderson, vice president of the SMSU Student Association, noted advantages and disadvantages of working while attending college.

“I was blessed with parents who taught me to work,” he said. “I had my first job when I was in second grade. Last year, I had six jobs at one time, which takes a toll on your studies. Ideally, I’d like to have concentrate on academics, but you can’t do that anymore. So my studies take a hit in terms of grades.”

Anderson is optimistic, though, that the technical experience he’s acquired while working will offset his less than superior grades.

Sandra Castillo noted how cuts had affected her academic experience. With the reduction of a faculty member, class sizes increased and students no longer had 1-on-1 relationships with professors, she said. Castillo also worried about diversity in light in cuts to student aid.

“Instead of bringing students in, they’re like kicking them out because the program was helping with minorities, pretty much with low income, to attend college,” she said. “And if we’re not getting the minorities, then we’re not getting diversity.”

Tracy Area graduate Mai Che Vue chose SMSU because of location. Like many of the students in attendance Wednesday, she and her twin sister Mai Ze, are first-generation college students in their family.

“I’m in finance, and I do like it,” Vue said. “I’ve heard it’s a good field. I started working at a bank when I was a junior in high school, so that kind of sparked my interest.”