There is still a lot that we don’t know about what the future will bring, but this much is certain: Every one of the 30 colleges and seven universities of Minnesota State will be open in the fall and ready to welcome students, and will adapt as necessary to safely serve them and continue to provide an extraordinary education.

Chancellor Devinder Malhotra

Minnesota State

By Michael Seymour, ATCC President

Higher education providers across the country are all over the board in terms of what to do fall semester.

Most Minnesota State Colleges and Universities are waiting to hear from the executive branch if all students will be allowed on campus for face-to-face instruction in the fall. Some higher education institutions have already opted to offer only online for fall. North and South Dakota schools have communicated their intent to be back on campus.

The uncertainty has enrollment in the Minnesota State system down 16.8% (as of May 18) for next fall. ATCC is currently down 9.8%.

Speculation is that students would rather sit it out than take their program of study online. There is also a concern about committing too early to a housing lease. College is an experience – it’s not entirely about earning a credential. The possibility of alternative delivery modes and no student life diminishes the value of an educational experience. Students and their parents are responding by considering taking a gap year.

Alexandria Technical and Community College is currently closed to the public. No students are on campus and all but essential employees are working from home. Executive order 20-48 (signed April 30) allowed for law enforcement students to return to campus to finish their training.

All 75 of our second-year students returned to finish their degree requirements, with no health- related issues reported. We will host law enforcement skills training starting June 1. Class size has been significantly reduced to maintain social distancing guidelines. Executive order 20-52 (signed May 11) also allows students in their last term to return to campus for skills training needed to graduate. However, this order limits the eligible groups to critical sectors, such as health care and manufacturing.

Under this order, we are planning for the return of welding students to campus on July 6. We are lobbying for latitude to allow our second semester practical nursing and diesel mechanics students back this summer to progress their studies. If this does not happen, these students will need to be available an extra semester before entering the job market.

Fewer enrolled students impact many things – particularly financials. Tuition makes up over half the revenues at most higher education institutions. The other half, for public institutions, comes from the state. With a projected deficit, the State of Minnesota is not likely to be in a position to fill our future budgetary gaps. The college did receive money from the federal government. The CARES Act provides money towards student emergency relief and operational losses related to COVID-19. This money provides the opportunity to not disrupt operations in the short term. We are focused on fall 2021 enrollment planning to mitigate any need for staff or program reductions.

We are optimistic that we will hear soon about our ability to bring all students and staff back to campus by fall semester. We expect that approval will include enhanced safety guidelines. We may not convince all students to attend this fall, but we can assure the ones that do we are doing everything we can to keep them safe. And, we will constantly remind them of their responsibility in those efforts.

If there are any bright spots from the pandemic experience, it provided a crash course in technology to many faculty and staff. It is truly incredible how our people responded to provide the best possible alternative learning experience to students.

In a matter of two weeks, 85% of our instruction was available remotely. We also learned that most of our staff are able to remain accountable working at home. They spent countless hours supporting students and each other using Zoom, phone and internet technologies. Perhaps our biggest take away is a renewed understanding of how critical hands-on, face-to-face interactions are in the success of Alexandria Technical and Community College.

Michael Seymour is the president of the Alexandria Technical and Community College. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.