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Our View: Cooperation is crucial to future of MnSCU

There's little debate whether Minnesota's public colleges and universities are engines that drive the state's economy and provide the workforce of tomorrow. Nearly 60 percent of Minnesota undergraduate students — more than 400,000 full-time or part-time — attend a school in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System.

For every five students who complete a certificate or degree at a MnSCU school, four of them stay in Minnesota.

The challenge will be to maintain those figures.

When he was appointed MnSCU chancellor two years ago, Steven Rosenstone was given the task of streamlining higher education in Minnesota. Although the seven universities and 24 community and technical colleges have been part of a single system since 1995, they essentially function independently. With 31 schools and 54 campuses in 47 communities, the system has been seen by some as an inefficient — perhaps even crazy — way to operate.

Duplication is inevitable with so many campuses. For example, for years, St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State University-Mankato competed for aviation majors, causing both programs to struggle. St. Cloud State University President Earl Potter has decided to close its program in 2014, concluding, "There was room for only one aviation program in the system." But Potter described the closure as "ad hoc. There was no system regulation or habit for doing that."

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Transferring between MnSCU schools hasn't been a simple matter, either. We've been fortunate locally with the cooperative relationship between Rochester Community and Technical College and Winona State University, but the RCTC-Winona "Path to Purple" transfer protocol isn't common. An RCTC student continuing at another state university often has to carefully negotiate the transfer with the help of an academic adviser to make sure all his or her credits are accepted.

But soon that should change. For the past year, three committees made up of 46 students, faculty, administrators and trustees from throughout the MnSCU system have met to identify how they can encourage more coordination and less competition among the schools. The result is "Charting the Future," a report approved last month by MnSCU trustees that outlines a plan to encourage joint academic planning and collective purchasing. The recommendations also call for expanding online offerings and giving students more opportunities to earn credit for previous experience and learning.

An early draft of the report was criticized by the system's university faculty union, condemning the proposal as a push toward "Soviet-style centralization." Consequently, the final draft explicitly drops references to a statewide academic plan and deletes specific proposals such as merging campuses, eliminating programs and relocating others. Instead, the report proposes that campuses "develop a collaborative and coordinated academic planning process."

We would have preferred the report kept the assertive language. Some consolidations and closures are necessary and inevitable if the system is to become more efficient.

The recommendations from the "Charting the Future" plan are expected to take three to four years to implement. The need for change in higher education is immediate, Rosenstone said, pointing to a job forecast saying 74 percent of all Minnesotans are going to need some form of post-secondary education by 2020.

The students emerging from MnSCU system to fill those jobs will have to work together. It's only fitting that the schools preparing them for those jobs work together, too.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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