Minnesota North College on course to transform higher education in NE Minnesota

by Annika Freiburger

***This article originally appeared in Business North and was written by Felicia Schneiderhan

The newly consolidated Minnesota North College (MN North) aims to transform higher education and the overall quality of life for many in the region with an expanded initiative to serve people who have never considered college, helping them train for and achieve meaningful, good paying careers with local employers.  

ASPIRENorth supports students from recruitment beyond graduation by providing resources and mentorship to help them overcome many barriers to college, such as childcare and transportation. The initiative is based on the success of an existing MN North program, EMPOWER. This smaller model showed an individualized approach helped students train for and find good paying jobs close to home, say college officials.

ASPIRENorth requires a radical shift in focus for higher education, says MN North President Mike Raich, away from measuring students’ performance through the system to measuring how well the system serves the student.

“It’s the way education should be, of course. It’s challenging to do because of the way education is designed. Right now, it’s mass education, where you try to bring a lot of people in. We want to refocus education, centered on the needs of individual students. With the help of Blandin, we have more resources to work toward that goal.”

A $3 million grant from the Blandin Foundation is supporting MN North’s multi-faceted approach that could serve as a model for rural college systems nationwide, according to Tuleah Palmer, Blandin Foundation president and CEO.

“It’s really significant, because of a sparser population, rural campuses have to deal with different types of financing,” said Palmer. “This particular project is focusing on the student, instead of the student having to accommodate the system. (MN North) is figuring out what parts of their system can be more agile to accommodate the student, and at the same time figuring out what the needs of employers are, and what the trends of region are showing forecasting in the future.”

The program is in line with Blandin’s commitment to the Grand Rapids area and the foundation’s new strategic focus, which includes community wealth building, said Palmer. “MN North is doing something innovative, responsive and courageous, and it’s sustainable. That’s really important for limited philanthropic dollars to support and invest in. This will last. It’s ramping up a system and a model to result in a different trajectory of this consolidation. It’s incredibly courageous for them to take on, and we’re really proud to be associated with their innovation and their responsiveness, and that will continue to be a trend for Blandin Foundation.”

Serving area students and employers

AspireNORTH focuses on innovative methods for recruitment, training and delivery, plus the ongoing support and sustainability for graduates and their employers.

The three-year grant will help reach populations who have not considered college for a variety of reasons. “We’re working harder to find people in our communities that just don’t believe they’re ready to come to college or can come to college for a variety of reasons – economic, social, family,” said Raich. 

After acceptance, individualized mentorship and resources address potential ongoing barriers, such as childcare, transportation, healthcare, supplies, secure housing and food, and other basic life necessities. 

“Once they’re in college, we keep a closer eye on them and work with them through mentorship, tutoring, cohorting them with a group of peers so they feel a sense of belonging. We can’t just bring them to college – we provide support while educating them.”

For example, a graduate of the EMPOWER program needed prescription welding glasses to continue her training; the program was able to provide them so the student could go on and graduate, and then find a job in the area. 

“This is about empowering people, getting people to support themselves and their families with good paying jobs with good benefits,” said Raich. 

Students are connected with potential employers early on and make connections with internships and site visits. MN North’s customized workforce department works directly with employers to address their needs, both for current positions and ongoing education for employees. 

“It’s an opportunity to really use education as a powerful tool to empower people to live better lives,” said Raich. “That’s what this grant has the ability to do. That’s on the human end. On the economic end, we have a workforce shortage and this is one way to add to the workforce in a more meaningful way. Our vision at MN North is to be a catalyst for regional prosperity. That means more than just economic – this grant hits at that vision.”

Building on EMPOWER success

ASPIRENorth is built on the success of EMPOWER, a smaller pilot program which recruited and trained women for nontraditional trades including welding, auto, diesel, carpentry, law enforcement, natural resources and engineering. It began in 2017 with a grant from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and has continued with IRRRB funding. 

Retention was strong, said Jessalyn Sabin, academic dean of career and tech education and director of operations at MN North’s Mesabi Range-Eveleth campus. Of the 64 students accepted into the program, 61 graduated and 1 entered a different program. 

“We conduct a needs assessment in the onboarding process. Different groups have different specific needs, depending on what the rest of their lives look like,” said Sabin. “Things that are stumbling blocks for folks aren’t always what one might anticipate until you’re living it. EMPOWER provided wraparound services and addressed a lot of the small things people needed, like somebody blew a tire, or somebody didn’t have gas to get to campus. We provide tools if they need them. We have a stock of laptops. We connect them with childcare options. There are a lot of resources out there. But if you’re focused on just getting to tomorrow, it can be hard to gather all those resources…we have someone help them find those resources.”

MN North’s connections to regional employers result in a 90% placement rate for its graduates of trades programs, which includes EMPOWER graduates. 

AspireNORTH will expand on EMPOWER to reach more people, including neighboring tribal sovereign nations, people of color, adults over age 25, people returning to work after time away, or those coming out of incarceration. EMPOWER will also continue.

The consolidated five campus system also expands the program’s ability to deliver more resources directly to students in their communities. “Before, our colleges had been in competition with each other. Now we’re merged and can be more adaptive working together,” said Sabin.

Currently, the program’s leadership team is being assembled. The program director and grant coordinator positions are now being hired. A tribal community liaison and career services coordinator will be next. Professional development and recruitment for existing staff and faculty is underway, and work to sustain existing connections to local industries and employers, say both Raich and Sabon. 

“We’re being intentional about opportunities for students, especially for folks who wouldn’t necessarily have those connections,” said Sabin.

“We’ve learned scholarships and financial support are hugely important, but maybe even more important is the network of people surrounding someone in terms of their success. That’s the beauty of this project – people helping people to meet their educational goals and built a better life, whatever that definition is for them.”