Add To Favorites
SE Minnesota college presidents face challenges as post-pandemic world looms
Post-Bulletin - 2/24/2021
Feb. 24—If you're a higher education leader and your mission is to prepare students for tomorrow's workforce, what do you do when that tomorrow is suddenly and abruptly upended?
How do you adapt? How do you prepare? In the midst of change, how do you prepare for change? Undergraduate students typically go to college to learn in communities, not at their kitchen table. How do you prepare a workforce for a world shaken by a 100-year pandemic?
On Tuesday, the pooh-bahs and leaders of the largest public and private higher education institutions in Southeastern Minnesota gathered for a Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce-hosted Zoom event to offer their perspectives.
ALSO READ: UMR, Google team up for health care education
Included were Jeffery Boyd, president of Rochester Community and Technical College; Lori Carrell, chancellor of the University of Minnesota Rochester; Jeanine Gangeness, Winona State University-Rochester's associate vice president of academic affairs; and Brian Schmisek, provost of Saint Mary's University-Rochester.
Most agreed that some of the changes wrought by the pandemic are here to stay, both in big and small ways. At SMU, for example, faculty are being encouraged to deliver their online lectures in smaller doses, to six minutes rather than 16.
Several said the mental health of incoming students will be a chief concern among college administrators and faculty in the pandemic's aftermath. At a time of their lives when social connections are key, thousands of high school students have learned in isolation, at home, separated from their peers. Colleges and universities will have to prepare and be sensitive for what that brings.
"It will inform our well-being curriculum and what we do outside of class with well-being, as well," Carrell said.
Schools like RCTC have broadened their mandate, not just to educate, but to help with financial issues. When RCTC switched more to remote learning, many students were given access to internet-enabled classrooms because they didn't have Wi-Fi at home. Scores of students needed help financially. The school disbursed more than $280,000 in CARES Act funds to students to pay for food, rent and car repairs.
Carrell said how industries in health care and business adapt and change in a post-pandemic world will have implications for higher education. Telemedicine has exploded in popularity since the start of the pandemic. That will impact how students are prepared. More broadly, high tech and artificial intelligence will be a "primary concern for us as we're preparing graduates for that world."
Affordability, always a key issue, will be even more critical for policymakers going forward. Minnesota's college-age population is declining even as it becomes more racially and ethnically diverse. Many already struggle to pay for college. A paramount challenge will be educating these students while decreasing student costs.
The region had a workforce shortage before the pandemic. Will it persist after the pandemic? Gangeness, who oversees the Rochester campus' expanding graduate programs, said it's too early to tell.
"I think it depends on how we decide to come out of the pandemic and how the adjustments in different businesses take place," she said. "I have no predictions around that. We will see what happens. I'm very excited about it, because I think there's a lot of opportunity, and there's no place more innovative than Rochester."
A pandemic might be viewed as a time when a college student might consider taking a year off. Requests for student financial aid are reportedly declining. And some students, looking for a more conventional college experience, are talking about taking a gap year.
The pandemic's impact on enrollment depends on the school and the type of student they serve. Boyd said RCTC's enrollment has fluctuated, up in the fall semester and down in the current spring semester. UMR saw their biggest freshman class ever this year.
Gangeness said growth in WSU Rochester's graduate programs has grown 20% to 30% each semester for the past six semesters. While the trend in gap years might impact the Winona campus, which serves undergraduate students, "our population is less interested in a football game or those kinds of activities," she said.
"When I was at that age, you take a gap year so that you could go traveling," Gangeness said. "I tell parents: What are you going to do with a gap year this year? I mean, this is a great time to catch up, and then come back strong."
(c)2021 the Post-Bulletin
Visit the Post-Bulletin at www.postbulletin.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.