by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
Two roving legislators chalked-up visits to more than a dozen Minnesota colleges and universities over recent days, gathering impressions and ideas.
Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee Chairwoman Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, and Vice Chair Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, during a break in their listening tour, spoke of student apprenticeships as a possible topic for legislators for the next session, seeing inspiration abroad.
“(Europeans have) had apprenticeship programs from the Middle Ages,” Clausen, a former high school principal, said.
Both Bonoff and Clausen emphasize providing students with real-life workforce experience. They have a sympathetic ear within the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
“I think Sen. Bonoff has a very good idea,” said Amy Walstien, who serves on education and workforce development policy for the chamber.
Chamber officials hear from the business community about a lack of trained workers, she explained.
“We hear that clearly from manufacturers,” Walstien said.
One challenge, beyond straightening out the legal terminologies of training programs, is connecting businesses with colleges, Walstien explained. Connections are stronger in Greater Minnesota; red flags went up long ago about a “brain drain” in rural Minnesota, she said.
House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee Chairman Gene Pelowski Jr., DFL-Winona, said private colleges and universities have good programs for placing students in internships. He looks for similar programs within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities curriculum.
“The (MnSCU) system should be working on it,” Pelowski said of maximizing workforce training opportunities.
Accepting student trainees is not without burdens to business, Pelowski said. Students require time, and there’s the question of trainees coming in contact with confidential proprietary information and then leaving for other jobs, Pelowski noted.
Bonoff does not plan bold apprenticeship legislation at this point.
“We have to start small because it is a new idea,” she said.
Lawmakers last session provided a tax credit to Greater Minnesota businesses accepting interns. The Bonoff and Clausen are also pondering student loan forgiveness.
“The students were very, very discouraged by the amount of crushing debt they were going to walk away from school with,” Bonoff said.
A program could be designed to allow students to lower their debt by working in nursing homes, schools or in other useful pursuits, the lawmakers suggest.
“That’s the kind of thing that the devil is in the details,” Bonoff said.
It’s not an initiative they would immediately pursue, Bonoff said, because the state budget has already been set.
Clausen spoke of better assisting students in developing career paths, starting in high school.
“I think over the years, as we brought more testing requirements, career education has really taken a back seat,” he said.
Additionally, high school, college and university educators should be talking to each other more often.
“There’s not as much (conversation) as there should be,” Clausen said.
The lawmakers foresee big changes in higher education. The old higher education model, the bricks-and-mortar, big institution bureaucracy, is outstripping available funding, Bonoff said.
“There is an urgency (to reform), because of the unsustainability of this model,” she said. “And economic times, and the debt, and kids needing to find work, and our workforce needs going unmet – it’s all at the point where Minnesota has the chance to lead this nation if we act strategically, with some urgency.”
Bonoff and Clausen seek to better understand “hybrid learning,” the blending of classroom and online courses.
Online learning really opens things up for higher education, Bonoff said, because it provides a chance for students to be taught by top professors without the need for the college or university to have the professor on staff.
Not that there aren’t problems.
“You can find them, but does that mean you can’t get credit for them?” Bonoff asked of online credits transferring.
Working that out remains a big issue, she explained.
Will online learning eventually overshadow bricks-and-mortar higher education?
“Online learning is not for all students,” Clausen said. There’s a need for a blended approach to learning, the lawmakers argue.
Bonoff and Clausen took to the road because they wanted a ground-level view of Minnesota’s diverse higher education institutions, they said.
“We listened,” Bonoff said.