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.

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.