The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

April 6, 2014

Educational leaders rethink technical education

Vocational track gaining momentum

After years of urging students to go to college for four years, Minnesota's education leaders are rethinking that push for a bachelor's degree.

More vocational education, they say, just might be the ticket for the state's workforce.

During the past two years, state officials have rolled out proposals to strengthen Minnesota's vocational-technical network and improve the school pipeline to the workplace.

Their efforts represent what some education leaders call a fundamental shift in how government and business are approaching vocational education.

"I don't think we've seen this level of involvement and commitment ever," said Alexandria Technical and Community College President Kevin Kopischke, who has worked in Minnesota vocational education for almost 40 years.

Minnesota has had a system of vocational-technical education for decades, much of it concentrated in the construction, manufacturing and health care trades and supported in part by labor unions.

But many education officials and employers say it has lost status during the past 15 to 20 years, the victim of state-funding cuts to high schools and a growing push for students to receive four-year degrees.

"Students going through high school have been told, 'You have to go to college,'" said Amy Walstien, director of education and workforce-development policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. "There hasn't been that focus on the other types of (education), like career and technical."

The recent recession and high unemployment of college graduates, however, have helped spark a change in thinking over the importance of a four-year degree.

"The leading voices have been the students and the business sector — students with their comments about crushing debt and job insecurity, and industry with their complaints that they're not able to fill the jobs that they currently have open," said Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka and chair of the higher education committee.

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