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.