Much is at stake for Minnesota as the legislative session nears its conclusion, but nothing puts the social and economic future of communities across the entire state at risk more than the substantial workforce shortage we face. The extent of the problem becomes very real when you travel Minnesota and see “Help Wanted” signs just about anywhere you go.

The colleges and universities of Minnesota State, which include Hibbing Community College, Itasca Community College, Mesabi Range College, Rainy River Community College, and Vermilion Community College (collectively, the Northeast Higher Education District, or NHED), are the most effective partner the legislature has to address this risk and meet the critical needs of business and industry. Every year, Minnesota’s flagship system of 30 state colleges and seven state universities send approximately 40,000 graduates into the economy – in fact, about 20,000 are completing degrees and certificates this month. Indeed, as I have the privilege of participating in commencement exercises at three of our NHED colleges, it is clear to me that these graduates are the very talent that will ease Minnesota’s workforce shortage and help communities thrive.

Meeting this need for talent is only possible because our state colleges and universities are committed to offering every Minnesotan the opportunity for an excellent education, regardless of age, economic status, cultural background, disability, immigration status, or place of residence. To meet the critical shortage of workforce talent, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind – especially those who have been underserved by higher education.

We meet this commitment by ensuring access to higher education – not just in the Twin Cities or larger communities, but through 54 campuses in 47 communities throughout the state. In addition to being vital economic, social, and cultural engines in these communities, every one of our campuses is a critical resource for students: for many, a college education is only possible because a campus is accessible in their community. These are places of hope and opportunity for people who dream of becoming our state’s next generation of professionals and leaders.

We also meet this commitment by finding new ways to partner with communities and employers. For example, our colleges are leveraging a $1 million legislative appropriation for workforce development scholarships by partnering with employers and donors to fund more and larger scholarships. These scholarships encourage high school students to enter fields that are in high demand by employers – fields such as health care, information technology, agriculture, and advanced manufacturing. NHED colleges have awarded 20 of these scholarships, and over 400 of them have been awarded across Minnesota. This kind of leverage benefits everyone: employers, communities, and most importantly, students.

Similarly, we meet this commitment by delivering the highest value, most affordable higher education option in the state. In fact, tuition at Minnesota State colleges has been flat for the last six years, and is one-third the cost of private trade schools. Tuition at Minnesota State universities is about half that of the University of Minnesota and one-fourth the cost of private colleges and universities. But value comes not just from low tuition – it also comes from quality academic programs and support services. As one indication, the Aspen Institute recognized five of our colleges, including Itasca Community College, among the top 150 public two-year colleges in the nation. Recognition like this only comes through the incredible work of our talented faculty and staff who deliver the greatest possible experience for their students every day.

But for Minnesota State to continue delivering on this commitment, we need support from the state. This legislative session, we have requested supplemental funding to ensure that our students succeed and our programs remain nimble and innovative as the needs of employers and communities across the state evolve. In addition, we have requested asset preservation funding for maintaining and modernizing the aging infrastructure at Minnesota State campuses and keeping them operating efficiently. Governor Dayton has shown his support with strong recommendations for funding that would touch all of our campuses. I know that legislators across Minnesota will strongly support their local campus, and we are confident that they will consider our proposal as negotiations with Governor Dayton proceed.

With support from the legislature, and with the continued hard work and spirit of innovation from our faculty and staff, we are fully prepared to continue delivering on our commitments to the citizens of Minnesota.

Devinder Malhotra is the chancellor of Minnesota State, which includes 30 community and technical colleges and seven state universities serving approximately 375,000 students.

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