Diversifying Minnesota Campuses
Omar Lopez-Sanchez’s passion started with Legos.
Growing up, he loved building things, and as he grew older, he knew he wanted to be an engineer.
But even with a hefty scholarship to the University of Minnesota, he couldn’t afford a four-year university. Tuition might be covered, but what about books? Housing? Food? His mother, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 20 years old, never got her driver’s license. He wondered who would drive her to church on Sundays if he wasn’t around to help out.
With these factors in mind, Lopez-Sanchez had to find an option outside of a four-year degree.
“I was fortunate when my counselor knew about an apprenticeship program,” he says.
Now, Lopez-Sanchez is one year into the ICATT program at Hennepin Technical College, which provides a full scholarship and paid apprenticeship offering an “earn while you learn” schedule. He takes classes on the Eden Prairie campus as part of the Industry Consortium for Advanced Technical Training.
He is among the first Minnesotans to enter the program. Without this option, he says he’s not sure what he would have done after graduating from Osseo Senior High School.
BIPOC higher education gap
As the cost of higher education rises, so does the cost of housing, food, and child care. While for many people being a student is a full-time job, other students need an actual full-time job to survive, raising the question: How can there be equity in higher education when this is the case?
It’s a conundrum faced by many students across the country, especially students of color.
Data shows that underserved populations often fall through the cracks in higher education—an issue the state of Minnesota has identified and that colleges, universities, and technical schools are working to remedy.
In 2015, the Minnesota Legislature established a goal that 70 percent of Minnesotans 25 to 44 years old reach postsecondary educational attainment—earning a certificate or degree—by 2025.
A 2021 report shows the state is making strides toward this benchmark, with 62.5 percent of this age cohort completing at least a postsecondary credential program.
However, the findings also highlight that attainment gaps persist among Black, Indigenous, and other populations of color.
White Minnesotans represent the highest attainment rate, with 68.3 percent completing postsecondary education of some kind, followed by Asian American residents, with 64.8 percent attainment, and multiracial residents, with 55.3 percent attainment. These are the only groups with more than 50 percent attainment.
Black Minnesotans have an attainment rate of 38.2 percent, and both American Indian and Hispanic Minnesotans have attainment rates just under 30 percent, according to an October 2021 report released by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
“To be successful, the state should focus on increasing the high school graduation rate, postsecondary enrollment, postsecondary persistence, and postsecondary completion, with an emphasis on Black, Indigenous, and students of color,” the report concludes. “There should also be a concerted effort to encourage and support adults with no college or some college to enroll and complete a postsecondary credential.”
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In recent years, colleges and universities across the state have launched various initiatives and programming to increase diversity on campuses. Here are some examples of these efforts:
‘No shortcut solution’
To Bayza Weeks, the goal is not just about closing disparity gaps. Disparities must be “dismantled,” piece by piece, meaning institutions need to do more than a once-a-year diversity training to check a box off a list, she says.
“Diversity has been the buzzword for decades, and it’s meant so many different things, but now it’s time to define that,” says Weeks, who serves as the executive director of community partnerships at Dunwoody College of Technology, based in Minneapolis. “When you say you’re a diverse organization or you have a diverse mindset or you have a diverse population, what does that mean? How does that manifest?”
Weeks’ position at Dunwoody was created in 2021 and is designed to boost high school graduation rates for Black, Indigenous, and other students of color.
Racial disparities persist in high schools just as they do in higher education. According to the state’s most recent numbers, a record 83.3 percent of Minnesota students finished high school in four years in 2020. However, graduation for white students was 88.7 percent compared with 69 percent for Black students.
Research has shown that greater educational attainment correlates with increased earnings, lower unemployment, better health, and other social and economic benefits.
With this in mind, Weeks has created Dunwoody’s Pathways to Careers program, which works to connect high schoolers with education opportunities and career prospects. Students selected for the program attend a three-week summer summit that focuses on career exposure and preparation. Those who choose to attend Dunwoody after high school receive continued support and a $10,000 scholarship each year while completing a two-year program.
The program now also works with community partners to identify disadvantaged adults with a high school diploma or GED who may want to continue their education.
As a first-generation college student and Black woman, Weeks is familiar with the obstacles that stand in the way of students of color.
“I think for far too long some of the concerns or all of the concerns that were brought forward by the underrepresented or marginalized communities have been swept under the rug—treated like they’re not real, that somehow race is not important, it’s not significant, we don’t have to talk about it. We do. It is important,” Weeks says.
“When you’re a person of color and you show up, most of the time the first thing that anyone sees about you is race,” she says. “Even though race is a social concept, it has been embedded into our communities and into our thinking. So I think the first step is just accepting that the challenges faced by people of color are real. The disparities, the racism, those things are real. Secondly, it’s time to undo the mask of privilege and the mask of believing that there’s a shortcut solution. There is no shortcut solution here. It’s going to take many, many, many hours, centuries, time, generations of people to undo the racism that is embedded.”
Often the onus is placed on underserved populations to show need and address inequities, Weeks notes.
“It’s a unique challenge. I’m glad that I’m able to be a part of it, but in some ways it’s really exhausting too,” she says. “It’s hard work working to educate people who are not people of color. It’s a double-edged sword sometimes.”
Leaders of color program
Often higher education can feel like a blind leap to a hazy destination. It’s hard to picture what a career looks like on a day-to-day basis, which makes it difficult for students to stay focused on their end goals.
Like Pathways to Careers, many universities have created pipeline programs that help show students what the trajectory from high school to college to the workforce looks like.
For the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, the Emerging Leaders of Color program, a free eight-month pathway program for underrepresented high school students, offers students of color this pipeline, says Geida Cleveland, assistant director for diversity and inclusion at Carlson.
Students in the program have access to business classes, professional development, networking with professionals from the Twin Cities corporate community, mentorship from current Carlson School students, and college preparation activities.
It’s one of many initiatives the school has implemented to increase enrollment and retention of underserved students, Cleveland says. The college also launched Analytics U last year, a day camp where students learn about business analytics.
“In our programming, we don’t just focus on business and teaching about, say, marketing,” Cleveland says. “We also want to make sure our students feel that they have support and have additional skill sets that are lifelong.”
University of Minnesota sophomore Aisha Mohamed is part of the Emerging Leaders of Color program at Carlson. In high school, she also had an apprenticeship with Genesys Works, a nonprofit that provides skills training, counseling, coaching, and paid internships to high school seniors from underserved communities.
“Through that internship, I found my interest in business and tech,” Mohamed says. “Before that, I didn’t know anybody working in that area.”
After identifying this interest through her internship, Mohamed wanted to hear from other college students before picking a school, which she could do through Emerging Leaders of Color. The program further encouraged her to continue her education at Carlson.
“For a lot of multicultural students, specifically for the immigrant community, the problem is there’s just not an example out there of what graduating college looks like and obtaining a job,” Mohamed says. “Being able to see that through the third-party organizations I’ve been part of made it more realistic, as well as giving me more confidence because I know what I’m getting into.”
Credit for life experience
It’s never too late to go back to school.
That’s the credo of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, a private Catholic university with an undergraduate residential college in Winona and an urban campus in Minneapolis, says Brian Schmisek, provost and dean of faculties.
It’s important to recognize that many people don’t complete the traditional four-year college degree right out of high school.
“It’s maybe a mother in her 30s or 40s who now has time to go back and complete the degree that was interrupted for one reason or another,” Schmisek says.
Saint Mary’s takes pride in “meeting students where they are,” both on campus and online, says Michelle Wieser, dean of the School of Business and Technology at the university. Among the ways they do so is by offering credit for real-world experience or providing personalized advising and counseling.
It’s important to stay innovative while searching for new ways to diminish achievement barriers, Weiser says. Recently the university began discussing issuing certificates to students on their way to achieving their degree, which could help them increase their earning potential while still in school. Currently, students can receive online “badges,” which designate skill competencies and can be linked to a LinkedIn profile.
“I love that, because when you’re a working mom or you’re a busy parent or an immigrant with a large family or a busy adult—any number of things—[the question becomes] how do we help you start to realize the benefit of your higher education before the end of your degree, which could take several years in some cases,” Wieser says.
With a graduating class of around 500, most of Lopez-Sanchez’s classmates at Osseo Senior High School went to a four-year college, but he says he believes many would opt for an apprenticeship if they knew the option was available.
He says he also feels there was a stigma around not going to a four-year school after high school. “That puts even more inevitable stress on a student, on top of stress they’re experiencing already,” he says.
The state’s educational attainment goal does not focus on completion of four-year degrees. Instead, it emphasizes obtaining a postsecondary certificate or degree. About one in eight Minnesotans with postsecondary educations completed a certificate as their highest credential, according to the most recent data.
For Lopez-Sanchez, an apprenticeship program was what made his dreams achievable.
Through ICATT’s program, he splits his week between studying automation robotics engineering technology at Hennepin Tech and working part-time at Buhler, a manufacturer in Plymouth that pays him full-time wages while he’s pursuing his education.
Hennepin Technical College is the only college in Minnesota in ICATT, the largest apprenticeship program in the U.S that is fully benchmarked on the German Dual Education System.
Since its launch in 2020, eight students enrolled at Hennepin Tech have worked with manufacturing employers through ICATT.
To provide all students access to higher education, colleges and universities need to tap into support from business and industry, says Jessica Lauritsen, Hennepin Tech vice president of student affairs.
Support goes both ways. Industry leaders need to support students seeking higher education, as they will be the company’s future workforce, she says. As worker shortages have hit many industries since the pandemic began, partnerships between industry and higher education have become increasingly important, Lauritsen notes.
As a large technical college in Minnesota, Hennepin Tech’s relationship with industry partners is key to student success. Partners sit on all of the college’s program advisory boards and provide internships, paid career experiences, and apprenticeships.
Increasing student diversity is a core element of the college’s strategic plan. Community partnerships and outreach are essential to reaching all students seeking higher education, but education leaders say support efforts can’t stop after a student enrolls.
The college also focuses on retaining students and helping them complete their programs.
“We are working with a really economically fragile population of students,” she explains. The average age of students attending the school ranges from 27 to 31, depending on the year. Some students have children. Many are working full-time jobs.
“At one point, 70 percent of our students worked full-time jobs while enrolled in school, so it’s really hard,” she says.
“Some students are hungry, homeless, and housing insecure,” she says. “Child care is a huge challenge for people, so we built resources to support all basic needs.”
These support services include gaining access to public assistance programs. Every month, students can get free groceries.
In 2021, the Minnesota Legislature directed colleges and universities to provide students with resources for basic needs and mental health.
Hennepin Tech already had resources that included advising, counseling, and tutoring, and it has expanded them since 2018, Lauritsen says. Since then, retention rates have risen by 5 percent.
“What we’re trying to do more of is get to the students and not have them have to find us,” she says.