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In the Know: How to make college affordable

Our students have been very fortunate to have a thriving foundation and support from donors, however, scholarships and philanthropic support are only one way we are able to make college affordable for those with financial needs.

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By Michael Seymour, ATCC President

Last week, the Alexandria Technical and Community College Foundation held its annual Legends Gala, which was an incredible reminder of the positive impact scholarships and philanthropic giving has on our students. The support was remarkable and will make a major difference in the college’s ability to add much needed student housing, as well as scholarship opportunities for students.

Our students have been very fortunate to have a thriving foundation and support from donors, however, scholarships and philanthropic support are only one way we are able to make college affordable for those with financial needs.

For many students, affordability and accessibility can mean the difference between being able to finish or not being able to complete college. It can also mean the difference between a trained and untrained workforce. I previously wrote about housing being the college’s greatest need to continue to grow enrollments. With the largest growth in headcount for the Minnesota State system this fall (9%), Alexandria Technical and Community College is an institution on the rise. Despite the growth, we have budget challenges created, in large part, by inflation.

Since 1995, the share of the state’s General Fund committed to higher education has fallen by nearly half (47%). Despite repeated requests to the Legislature by the Minnesota State system that would allow us to avoid tuition increases, keep pace with much needed instructional equipment, reduce our deferred maintenance backlog and address inflation, the needed funding has not been forthcoming. In the most recent session, the supplemental budget request that was submitted to the Legislature included requests for $30 million for Minnesota State campus operational support and $25 million to fund an undergraduate tuition freeze. Although the state was in the enviable position of a $9 billion budget surplus, the session ended without legislation for higher education to offset rising costs or to address deferred maintenance.

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This was the context in which Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of Minnesota State, and Jay Cowles, a Board of Trustees member, recently visited Alexandria as part of a tour of the state meeting with community leaders and campus stakeholders. Their purpose was to engage with local constituents in listening sessions to gather perspectives that will inform the system’s FY2024/2025 biennial budget request. They heard quite a bit from students, faculty, staff, and community representatives including economic development, chamber, and business leaders. As a result, Minnesota State will put forth a bold request for the 2023 session.

From industry leaders, they heard how having in-demand programs and certifications available in the community fulfills local workforce needs. They heard about the financial challenges for college programs to adapt curriculum and equipment to meet changing industry skill sets. They also heard from our Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission and the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce about how childcare and housing issues have an impact on the community’s ability to attract and retain college students in our community’s workforce.

The economic vitality of Alexandria, our neighboring communities and the state depends on skilled workers. During the listening session, we heard that Minnesota State needs to be accountable for results and that its biennial budget request should not compromise obtaining the resources needed to deliver on the success of students. Their success is directly connected to the vitality of our state’s economy.

If fully funded, Minnesota State’s budget request would provide resources for Alexandria Technical and Community College to offset inflation, keep tuition rates flat for two years, and provide matching funds to update program equipment. It would also provide scholarships for students pursuing high-demand programs like Nursing, Carpentry and Law Enforcement. We understand and appreciate the complexity lawmakers face in addressing all the needs of the state, but hope that higher education, particularly career and technical education, will prove to be a strong investment made in the next legislative session.

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.

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