MnSCU, Metro State grapple with demand for four-year degrees

Metropolitan State University (Courtesy of Metropolitan State University)

State college and university leaders are trying to fill the growing hunger for bachelor’s degrees in the Twin Cities metro area – and say Metropolitan State University may not be large enough to handle demand.

The 43-year-old university in St. Paul has long played a niche role within the public university system – as a school for working adults.

Now its leaders are trying to decide whether the university can grow and change to meet that demand — or if other universities need to help out.

“I see it as a turning point,” in the history of the school, Provost Ginny Arthur said.

Metro State is different from most universities in that it has a niche mission to educate older, working adult students, many of them students of color.

When it opened in 1971 it had no campus. Instead, the university used spaces scattered throughout the area. There were no letter grades — and students could design their own majors.

At the time, Metro State taught only juniors and seniors who transferred from other institutions. Most faculty members were part-time instructors.

But it was a leader in new education ideas such as giving academic credit for what students had learned or could prove competent in.

Since then, Metro State has changed.

It has a campus on a hill overlooking downtown St. Paul. It has more than 11,000 students — including some freshmen and sophomores — and has been growing fast over the past several years. Now you see letter grades, traditional majors and more full-time faculty.

Still, Metro State’s mission means most classes are still at night to accommodate students’ schedules.

It has no sports teams or dorms, so hasn’t acquired a profile as high as other state universities’ such as the one in Bemidji.

“There’s kind of an identity that’s lacking there,” said DFL state Sen. Sandy Pappas of St. Paul, a Metro State alumna and former faculty member. “There’s some loyalty from the East Side, but [unlike Bemidji State] it’s not the only show in town.”

Yet this commuter school faces what MnSCU says is a coming wave of students — mostly of color — who will be trying to get skilled jobs.

MnSCU will need to produce a total of 50,000 bachelor’s graduates in the metro area by 2025 to keep up with projected job growth, said John O’Brien, interim vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

Many of the new students will be those who are not accepted to private colleges or the University of Minnesota or can’t afford them.

But even under its current rate of enrollment growth — 34 percent since 2006 — Metro State could meet less than half of that demand, O’Brien said.

Chancellor Steven Rosenstone told trustees at a meeting today that it’s up to MnSCU to fill the need.

“There’s no other system or set of institutions that has as their core mission ensuring access to higher education for those communities,” he said. “The ability of a Macalester or Carleton to deliver great education is not the debate before us. It’s their ability to move the numbers on the dial that we’re talking about.”

He said he also did not want for-profit colleges — which some MnSCU officials see as direct competitors — to pick up the slack.

Rosenstone said he did not want to tell students, “‘I’m sorry, but we’re not going to get into this. You’re going to have to go off and pay twenty-some-odd thousand dollars at a for-profit institution for a less-quality education that’s going to prepare you less for the next steps you’re coming to take. [I think] it’s wrong. It’s not responding to the people we’re supposed to be serving in the metro. And so I see some urgency around this coming gap.”

Despite its impressive growth, Metro State has faces some obstacles to meeting growing demand, MnSCU officials say.

Because the campus is landlocked, it can’t build much more than it already has. Students find it hard to reach with mass transportation.

Although Metro State leases space in other parts of the metro area, those sites tend to offer a small selection of specialized degrees.

And the university hasn’t offered such basic degrees as chemistry, physics, statistics and engineering.

To adapt to demands, Arthur said the campus may need to add more traditional degrees, taking in more younger students and offering more day classes.

“We’re definitely evolving towards a more traditional educational structure,” she said.

Just recently, Metro State added a chemistry degree, as officials hope to build a science building soon. The multimillion-dollar building is MnSCU’s first construction priority in its request for facilities funds from the legislature.

It also has considered a site in downtown Minneapolis.

But MnSCU officials say that might not be enough to meet demand.

“We’re going to do more at Metro State,” trustee Duane Benson said. “We’re [also] having this ongoing discussion about ‘Should we start another college? Should we expand with what we have?”

Officials there are kicking around several ideas, some of which O’Brien said could be contentious.

Administrators first ruled out building another metro-area university, but today some trustees said they still want to still consider that. They might convert one of the area’s two-year colleges into a branch campus of one of the MnSCU universities.

Another proposal would ask two-year colleges to start offering bachelor’s degrees.

Some universities such as MSU Moorhead already offer four-year degrees in the metro area with the help community colleges and MnSCU may build small academic centers around the metro area.

O’Brien said the last idea has drawn strong support from MnSCU universities.

Still, MnSCU officials said many of the ideas may face some big financial and political obstacles.

Helping to manage them will be Devinder Malhotra, the St. Cloud State University provost who was named Metro State’s interim president today. He’ll start serving a two-year term July 1, 2014.

He’s taking over for Sue Kiefer Hammersmith, who will retire after serving for six years.