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Scholarship program takes aim at workforce shortage

Chancellor on tour to raise awareness of Workforce Development Scholarships

Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities, spoke with members of the media in Marshall on Wednesday afternoon.

MARSHALL — The state of Minnesota is facing a couple of tough trends, said Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra. Employers in industries like manufacturing are facing a significant worker shortage. At the same time, potential workers are struggling to pay for the education they need to start a career.

“If you put all of these facts together, it seems like a perfect storm is brewing,” Malhotra said.

But that’s where efforts like a pilot scholarship program have stepped up to try and help. Over the next two years, Minnesota State colleges and universities will have hundreds of scholarship opportunities for students going into high-demand careers, Malhotra said.

The new Workforce Development Scholarships at the Minnesota State system will be “a game changer” for many area students, said Southwest Minnesota State University President Kumara Jayasuriya.

On Wednesday, Malhotra was in Marshall as part of a statewide tour — “Some people are referring to it as a blitz,” he said — talking about the scholarship program. The Workforce Development Scholarships are aimed at students pursuing jobs in industries like manufacturing, agriculture and health care.

“Essentially, the idea is to raise awareness of two needs,” Malhotra said. The first is the need for better access to higher education for Minnesota students, and to create opportunities for students to succeed, he said. The second is the need to address current and future workforce shortages in the state.

“The two trends are really related,” Malhotra said. The students that will make up Minnesota’s future workforce come from diverse backgrounds, and thousands will face financial and other barriers to completing a degree.

For many students, “A $500 or $1,000 difference between the resources they have and the cost of their education could make or break as to whether they will stay,” he said.

In the 2018-19 academic year, around 400 Workforce Development Scholarships were awarded to students entering Minnesota State colleges for associate degree, diploma or certificate programs in high-demand fields. The scholarships, at $2,500 each, were made possible by a $1 million appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature during its 2017 session.

This year’s legislative session has expanded the scholarship program, making $2 million available for the 2019-2020 academic year, and $6 million in 2021.

“This year, with the $2 million, we will be giving out 668 scholarships, and then the following year there will be another 2,400 scholarships,” Malhotra said.

At Minnesota West Community and Technical College, a total of 28 Workforce Development Scholarships will be available in 2019-2020.

Scholarships will also be available for students in an expanded number of fields, including information technology, agriculture, health care, manufacturing, early childhood education and transportation. And starting in 2021, the seven Minnesota State universities will be able to award Workforce Development scholarships to eligible students who want to transfer from a state college into a bachelor’s degree program.

“In that sense, the size and scope has increased dramatically,” he said of the program.

The Workforce Development Scholarships being available for transfer students will have an impact on local students, Malhotra said. Scholarship recipients being able to go from an associate degree to a four-year program will strengthen connections between Minnesota West Community and Technical College and SMSU. The two schools already have a collaborative program, the Blue to Brown Connection, designed to help Minnesota West students transfer to the university.

Malhotra said there will be $4 million in ongoing legislative funding for the Workforce Development Scholarships after 2021. However, he said, “We will also have every intent of making a compelling case that the size and scope of that support from the state needs to increase.”

The investment in the scholarship program won’t solve all Minnesota’s workforce problems, Malhotra said. “But I think what it does, is it sends a very strong signal,” for Minnesota businesses and communities to join in and help, he said.

“We want them, all hands on deck, supporting our students to the point that we can increase the scale of our operations. We can bring them more students, we can get more students across the finish line, and thereby dramatically increase the number of well-trained, expert professionals we put into the workplace,” he said.

So far, contributions from business, industry and community partners have allowed colleges to increase scholarship amounts for students. In one example, he said, the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association donated $30,000 to help support students going into the manufacturing industry. In another example, Riverland Community College has received a total of $45,000 in matches from business partners to help supplement the scholarship funding.

The news about the expansion of the Workforce Development Scholarships comes in the same year that the Minnesota State system authorized a 3% tuition increase. Malhotra said the system was faced with “a very difficult choice” when it came to balancing the need for affordable higher education with the need to support the quality of that education.

“In spite of our increase in tuition, we still remain by far the most affordable option for higher education, bar none, in the state of Minnesota,” he said.

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