The New Two-Year College

How exorbitant college costs and national and state job trends have made Minnesota’s two-year colleges and technical programs solid investments.

Women in the electrical, welding, and cabinetmaking programs at Saint Paul College
Women in the electrical, welding, and cabinetmaking programs at Saint Paul College, a community and technical college.


A breakdown of what’s beyond the traditional four-year school:

Community colleges offer general education courses, as well as associate’s degrees, and they often act as steppingstones or compliments to four-year degrees.

Technical colleges are specifically designed to prepare students for the work world. They offer two-year degrees, diplomas, and certificates in specialized fields.

Technical and community colleges offer technical and community college courses—a great starting point for a student who isn’t quite sure whether to enter the workforce or lay the groundwork for a bachelor’s degree.

MnSCU schools are supported by a state appropriation. Tuition is typically lower than private institutions or the University of Minnesota.

Private, for-profit schools offer many of same degrees, certificates, and diplomas as MnSCU community and technical colleges, but often with a smaller and more personalized enrollment (and a higher tuition rate). —Taylor Selcke


The “traditional” college student is no longer the norm, and neither is the “traditional” college.

A great cultural shift is happening among college-aged students and their supporting families, largely due to the lack of financially sustaining jobs for graduates. A new report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity shows that nearly half of all employed college graduates have jobs that require less than a four-year education (though employers prefer those with the communication and critical-thinking skills provided by one).

Such jobs often pay less than a living wage. Consequently, the number of 26-year-olds living with parents has jumped almost 46 percent since 2007.

But college costs remain exorbitant. Tuition at public four-year colleges increased by more than 18 percent between 2006 and 2011. And during the past 25 years, tuition has increased at twice the rate of health care costs. It’s clear our state and federal governments have quite a task ahead of them if higher education is truly for all. In the meantime, students and families are seeking quality higher education at a more reasonable price.

Enter: Minnesota’s two-year colleges and technical programs, which can provide ready-to-work degrees and technical training plus employer-preferred “soft” skills such as communication, critical thinking, and big-picture perspective—all at a fraction of a four-year college cost. And many two-year colleges in Minnesota offer near-seamless transfer to Minnesota four-year institutions—providing huge savings on bachelor’s degrees.

“While the traditional college experience still exists, the demands of life, the realities of financial challenges, and a changing attitude about two-year colleges have led to more students actively seeking out a technical education, rather than ‘settling’ for it,” says Erin Edlund, director of institutional advancement for Dakota County Technical College.

That’s exactly what’s happening. In 2012, 29 percent of college students nationally were enrolled in two-year programs, a 6 percent increase from just two years ago, says a report from college loan lender Sallie Mae. Here in Minnesota, the number of undergraduates enrolled in all of our public community and technical colleges is greater than the number of undergraduates enrolled at all of our public four-year colleges.

And increased cost-consciousness is most pronounced at the highest income levels: the percentage of students from high-income families opting to live at home while in college has nearly doubled in only two years.

New Cost Realities

When costs skyrocket but return on the investment isn’t clear, customers go looking for value. As college costs have increased with precious few career-track jobs at the end, the amount families pay for college has actually fallen for the past two years.

Choosing two-year and technical programs is a big part of that drop. Students cut costs by paying less per credit, by living at home, by attending part-time, and by shortening their time in college before entering the workforce as full-time employees.

The savings are significant. “Students attending Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) can save anywhere from $2,000 to $40,000 per year,” says Lynda Milne, senior system director of extraordinary education and student success for MnSCU.

Plus, “Two-year programs are designed to meet market demands and can offer excellent return on investment for students,” says Shana Weiss, academic dean of Globe University and Minnesota School of Business. Students leave ready to work, but also ready to build on their college education in a process called laddering. “If students complete a short-term certificate that ladders into an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, they can be working directly in the field, yet advancing their education simultaneously.”


New Need for Convenience

“The biggest difference with college students today versus 20 years ago is that they are working more hours to fund their college experience,” says Weiss.

That requires a level of flexibility that two-year colleges and technical programs have a long track record of providing. Online classes, one-night-a-week and weekend classes, and a focus on hands-on competency (learning by doing) are what community and technical colleges do best.

“Our students are . . . working more jobs and more hours while juggling family and school obligations,” says Janet McClelland, director of marketing and communications at North Hennepin Community College. “Two-year colleges offer flexibility in terms of class delivery and convenient location.” These institutions structure class offerings for the needs of working students, adults returning to school, and students who are place-bound throughout Minnesota.

An even greater convenience is provided by the state-supported MnSCU system. The Minnesota Transfer Curriculum provides guaranteed transferable courses from MnSCU community and technical colleges to MnSCU four-year universities and the University of Minnesota. If a student completes the whole curriculum (40 credits in 10 goal areas) at a two-year MnSCU college, he or she won’t have to take additional general education courses at a four-year MnSCU college or the U of M.

It’s huge savings and an open door. “Many of our students will go on to graduate from four-year colleges and universities, with the savings . . . ranging from $15,000 to $50,000—and still graduate with the same diploma on the wall,” says Matthew Crawford, dean of enrollment and marketing for Normandale Community College. Says Ashley Weatherspoon, director of enrollment services at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, “More than 50 percent of our students are here to get their Minnesota Transfer Curriculum done.”

And stronger partnerships between colleges are in the works. Normandale, for instance, opened its new Partnership Center where students work on advanced degrees from Metropolitan State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato, without leaving Normandale’s campus.

New Response to Career Trends

Though the national career outlook for recent college graduates is pretty bleak, there’s a silver lining on Minnesota’s horizon: 70 percent of all jobs in our state will require some postsecondary training in 2018. Top jobs? In energy: electricians, supervisors of construction and trades, electrical power line installers and repairers. In health care: nurses, dental assistants, medical assistants, and home health aides. In technology: pretty much anything.

Minnesota’s two-year programs have always been quick to respond to such workforce needs. For instance, at Dunwoody College of Technology, “All of our programs have an advisory committee made up of industry professionals who help inform what we teach and how we teach it,” says Jeff Ylinen, Dunwoody’s provost. All 10 MnSCU community and technical colleges in the metro area have a department that works specifically with businesses to assess training needs. And last year, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Department of Employment and Economic Development partnered with MnSCU for listening sessions in six industries across the state to find out what our community and technical colleges can do to meet the workforce requirements of Minnesota employers.

In the end, employment is still the goal for students, families, and employers. Says Allison Friedly, director of marketing and public relations for Saint Paul College (a community and technical college), “Employers are not only looking for someone that is good with mechanical tools and machines or systems, but also employees who communicate well with clients and co-workers, possess critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and understand what it means to be a team player.” Minnesota’s two-year colleges and programs aim to provide that.


Metro-Area Colleges with Two-Year Programs

Only some of the options


Public Community and Technical Colleges

  • Anoka-Ramsey Community College 11200 Mississippi Blvd. NW, Coon Rapids, 763-433-1100, anokaramsey.edu
  • Anoka Technical College 1355 Hwy. 10 W., Anoka, 763-576-4700, anokatech.edu
  • Century College 3300 Century Ave. N., White Bear Lake, 651-779-3300, century.edu
  • Dakota County Technical College 1300 E. 145th St., Rosemount, 651-423-8301, dctc.edu
  • Hennepin Technical College 9000 Brooklyn Blvd., Brooklyn Park; 13100 College View Dr., Eden Prairie, 952-995-1300, hennepintech.edu
  • Inver Hills Community College 2500 E. 80th St., Inver Grove Heights, 651-450- 3000, inverhills.edu
  • Minneapolis Community & Technical College 1501 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., 612-659-6000, minneapolis.edu
  • North Hennepin Community College 7411 85th Ave. N., Brooklyn Park, 763-488-0391, nhcc.edu
  • Normandale Community College 9700 France Ave. S., Bloomington, 952-358-8200, normandale.edu
  • Saint Paul College 235 Marshall Ave., St. Paul, 651-846-1600, saintpaul.edu

Private, For-Profit Community and Technical Colleges

  • DeVry University 7700 France Ave. S., Ste. 575, Edina, 952-838-1860, devry.edu
  • Globe University—Minnesota School of Business Multiple locations, globeuniversity.edu
  • Rasmussen College Multiple locations, rasmussen.edu

Private, Non-Profit Technical Colleges

  • Dunwoody College of Technology 818 Dunwoody Blvd., Mpls., 612-374-5800, dunwoody.edu
—Compiled by Taylor Selcke