The top leader of the Minnesota State higher education system was in Rochester last week to promote a new scholarship program aimed at getting more students in high-demand occupations at a time when enrollment is dropping at colleges and universities.

Chancellor Devinder Malhotra was at Rochester Community and Technical College touting the system's workforce development scholarships, which began as a $1 million pilot project last year to draw students to high-demand occupations. The state this spring directed $7 million more toward the program, making the $2,500 scholarships available to hundreds more students.

Those high-demand fields include manufacturing, agriculture, health care services, information technology, early childhood education and transportation programs.

Changing demographics mean that tomorrow's workforce will be more diverse. Yet the very communities that employers hope to draw these workers form have had "very low" participation rates in higher education. 

"We have a perfect storm brewing," Malhotra said. "It's very important that we increase the number of graduates with post-secondary credentials who will be prepared for the workforce."

The goal of the scholarship program is to attract students who otherwise wouldn't go to college or keep them in school once they start. That's a problem: A third of Minnesota State students drop out between their first and second year. Yet the vast majority are in good academic standing when they do. 

"They drop out because life happens," Malhotra said, adding that the scholarships could help keep these students in school. 

The challenge is compounded by the fact that enrollment is declining across the Minnesota State system because high schools are graduating smaller classes. RCTC alone has seen an enrollment drop of 21 percent over the last seven years, because of that factor and the nation's strong economy. 

RCTC President Jeffery Boyd said it was still too early to say what fall enrollment will look like with the first day of school still weeks away. 

"We're hopeful," Boyd said. "We'll still be a little down, I think. It's cyclical, but we're working on it."

The scholarship's expansion — made possible by $2 million this year and $6 million the next — means that Minnesota State will be able to increase the number of scholarships to nearly 670 this fall. RCTC will be able to award 25 scholarships this year, up from nine under last year's pilot program. 

Mohamed Sheik, 20, was one of the RCTC students to receive a $2,500 scholarship. A gradate of Rochester's STEM Academy, Sheik is studying to be a web developer.

He said the scholarship didn't determine whether he was going to college or not. He was going anyway. But it did place less of a burden on his dad, who otherwise would have footed the bill for much of his college costs.

"He didn't have to pay anything," Sheik said about his dad. 

That's not a small consideration for Sheik. He is the oldest of 10 children in his family, and he intended to encourage two of his younger, college-age siblings to take advantage of the awards. 

Malhotra acknowledged that the scholarships are only a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall needs of the state. But he expressed the hope that the scholarships might be a catalyst for strengthening ties between higher education and business.

He noted that Riverland Community College was able to raise money for 18 extra scholarships with the help of the area business and philanthropic communities and the Hormel Foundation. 

"I don't see these scholarships as the complete solution," Malhotra said. "They are a piece of a very broad puzzle, but they are a very important piece." 

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Matt, a graduate of Toledo University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, got his start in journalism in the U.S. Army. For the last 16 years, he has worked at the PB and currently reports on politics and life.