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NTC sees expanded scholarship program as key recruiting tool

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BEMIDJI -- Hundreds of college-bound students across Minnesota now have the opportunity to be awarded workforce development scholarships worth $2,500 or more that will help them launch a career in a high-demand occupation in Minnesota.

Earlier this week, Minnesota State system Chancellor Devinder Malhotra visited 20 university and technical college communities to raise awareness about the scholarships, including Bemidji. He said enhancing access and promoting student success are among the system’s top priorities. This scholarship program falls in line with those priorities.

“As I have traveled around the state, a theme that I consistently hear from employers is that Minnesota is facing a critical shortage of workers with the skills needed for high-demand occupations,” Malhotra said.

In the 2018-19 academic year, nearly 400 Workforce Development Scholarships of $2,500 were awarded to students entering Minnesota State colleges as part of a pilot program funded by a $1 million appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature during the 2017 session.

The scholarships were made available to new students entering associate degree, diploma or certificate programs in high-demand sectors of Minnesota’s economy at any of the 30 Minnesota State community and technical colleges. The qualifying programs included advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care and information technology.

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Malhotra said data indicate that retention rates are growing because of the scholarships. The retention rate for students who received the scholarship was about 90 percent, according to Malhotra, which is about 20 percent higher than the general student population.

“We need to support student success and enhance access (to college),” Malhotra said, noting the Minnesota State schools already are a major player in helping to address workforce shortages in the state.

During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers expanded the pilot program by making $2 million available for the 2020 fiscal year. In 2021 there will be $6 million available for the program. With the additional funding, the number of available scholarships will increase to an estimated 668 in 2020.

The legislation also expanded the program to include early childhood education and transportation.

In Bemidji, that means a total of 25 $2,500 scholarships available by 2020. And that’s a great tool to use in attracting -- and retaining -- students here in Bemidji, said Darrin Strosahl, NTC Academic Affairs vice president.

“(The scholarships) allowed us to expand our ways, our methods, to support our students in their pursuit of education,” Strosahl said. “We have the ability to be able to say to students that ‘We can help you get through the financial hurdles that are there.’”

And if technical college students decide that after earning a two-year certificate or associate’s degree and they want to attend a four-year college, such as a BSU, that scholarship could be carried over for a third year.

Malhotra and Strosahl both said that’s a strong tool in helping students move from a certificate or associate’s degree to a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree. And having more residents with post secondary degrees will only make for a more thriving community, and ultimately, a more thriving state.

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Students who receive the $2,500 scholarships also still will be available for other financial aid, such as Pell grants.

Malhotra said officials realize that an additional $8 million through the 2021 fiscal year will not solve either the state’s workforce shortage or strained funding for colleges and universities. But it’s a start.

Adding to the initial funding from the Legislature, Malhotra said colleges are leveraging private contributions from business, industry and other partners to increase the value of the scholarships.

The scholarships “should be viewed as a catalyst, a harbinger of bigger things to come,” Malhotra said.

Forum News Reporters Sydney Mook and Matt Cory contributed to this report.

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