The Chancellor: Higher Education’s Role, Challenges and Opportunities

In his luncheon address at MCFE's 93rd Annual Meeting and Policy Forum, Chancellor Devinder Malhotra of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities highlighted the critical role, challenges, and opportunities state colleges and universities play in supplying the necessary talent to Minnesota, both now and in the future.   

With workforce-related issues and challenges being such a dominant theme in the morning’s state competitiveness discussions, questions of how our higher education system is prepared to help meet that demand and deliver that talent naturally arise.   MCFE was honored to have Chancellor Devinder Malhotra of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities as our luncheon speaker to provide insights on what the Minnesota state system currently offers, what it strives to offer in the future, and what it takes to deliver on that vision.

The Chancellor began by describing Minnesota’s State Colleges and Universities significant – and often underrecognized – contribution to the state’s workforce.  Consisting of 37 colleges and universities on 54 campuses located in 47 communities across the state, the system serves over 350,000 students annually.  Importantly, the system serves especially significant numbers of students in both rural and underserved communities.  Nearly 60% of the system’s students reside in greater Minnesota.  Enrollment consists of 80,000 students from low income families, nearly 25,000 students 25 years old or older, and 50,000 first generation students.  The system’s 63,000 students of color or native origin is greater than the entire enrollment on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus.

Such diversity, he said, speaks to the system’s strength and an impending challenge.  The Minnesota State system is already aligned to the state’s rapidly changing demographics and the demand for customized occupational training and skills.  Of the system’s 38,000 degrees, certificates and diplomas awarded each year, nearly 20,000 come from the system’s career and technical programs.  50% of all state IT professionals, business graduates and teachers come from the system.  But he said “we are not even close to where we need to be.”

To meet the needs of the future, the Chancellor described several important initiatives under way.  First is the nature of the relationship between the schools and private sector employees.  He noted this historically transactional relationship is increasingly partnership-oriented.  He described several examples of how partner companies are now part of educational delivery by “extending the landscape of learning” from the classrooms to the workplace.  This, he remarked, is the beginning of a more ambitious effort to position the Minnesota State system to meet the needs of tomorrow.  This new initiative, “Reimagining Minnesota State” –convened national experts and an advisory group of state thought leaders for a year long process to identify critical success factors to meet the needs of students, Minnesota employers, communities, and the state economy.

Chief among the conclusions was the absolute imperative to close educational equity gaps wherever they exist.  Our gaps, he noted, have persisted for two decades and have hardly moved, but not from lack of trying.  Students often come to the system with economic fragility and many other barriers which makes access and commitment to post-secondary education difficult.  Between first and second years, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities experiences about 30% attrition, but in the overwhelming majority of those cases, he observed, the individuals are in good academic standing.  Economic circumstances and related issues get in the way.  Students face food insecurity and mental health issues.  One in 10 face homelessness while in college.  Seventy percent of Minnesota population increases in the future will come from diverse communities; in the Twin Cities that number is nearly 100%.

At the same time, he noted, 75% of emergent jobs will require some post-secondary credentials requiring us to draw workers from places with historically low participation rates in post-secondary education.  That is why, he argued, closing achievement gaps is not just a moral imperative, “it is an economic imperative.”  Malhotra sees no way out of our workforce challenges or the ability to sustain and enhance our economic vibrancy without dramatically increasing the proportion of population within diverse communities with post-secondary credentials.  For this reason, the Minnesota state colleges and universities board adopted what Chancellor Malhotra called a “moonshot” goal -- to close all education equity gaps at every state college and university by 2030.  To accomplish this, he concluded, will require unprecedented levels of cooperation among the private sector, public sector, communities, and college and university campuses.

Audience questions offered additional perspective and color on his presentation.  Are training programs keeping up with the rapid changes occurring in manufacturing and IT?  Chancellor Malhotra said to meet this challenge it’s critical to concentrate not just on the work of the future but also the future of the work.  The latter is becoming more and more vital.  For example, “operating a machine” – or for that matter most any type of technical service -- requires digital literacy, data analytics and data usage in real time, and understanding of business processing and supply chain management.  The educational system, curriculum designs, and program delivery must be able to readily and quickly adapt to developments and changes in those three core areas.  That is happening right now.

Keynote speaker Phil Schneider offered that from his experience, employers are facing two sets of skill related challenges:  technical understanding and job readiness (i.e. “softer”) skills.  He said the latter (communication, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, initiative, cultural awareness, etc.) often prove to be no less a hurdle than the former.  What can/is the educational system doing to address them? The Chancellor replied we have long focused on the academic rigor of the programs but haven’t adequately focused on the relevancy of these softer skills to the work and life of students.  He offered three ways they are tackling this issue.  The first is to extend the landscape of education from classrooms into the workplace with their company partners.  Through experiential learning, the relevance and importance of these complementary and vital “soft” skill sets are much more evident and tangible.  Second is to emphasize cross disciplinary programming in curriculum design and delivery.  More and more liberal arts content, critical thinking, and problem solving is being embedded in the curriculum to mimic what the student will face in the workplace.  Finally, the Minnesota state system is looking at opportunities to increase credit for prior learning – trying to figure out ways to give student credit for experiential learning in previous jobs.  Why, he asked, should we make a student sit for weeks in a classroom just to certify the understanding the student already has?

How is the “Reimagining Minnesota State” initiative obtaining the support of internal stakeholders, such as faculty, which are no less critical to success?  The Chancellor observed that this challenge is really no different than the challenge faced by any large organization seeking to respond and reposition to new realities and falls under the heading of change management.  “Reimagining” raised the level of urgency and immediacy of the issues Minnesota State had to deal with.  Change management was embedded into the process by including the participation and soliciting the feedback of all segments of the university system.  Now the task is one of building alliances within the system to create critical momentum for implementing change.  He concluded by noting the “one-third rule” of change – in any change effort, one-third are supporters and believers, one-third are strongly opposed, and one-third are on the fence and can be persuaded.  Right now, he said the task is focused on that last segment to bring them to the “supporters” side which creates the needed mass for making change happen.