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Community College Offers Imperfect Solution to a Difficult Problem

December 22, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

It's an imperfect plan, but Normandale Community College is willing to go ahead with it anyway.

The Bloomington college is embarking on a plan that, while it goes against the traditional college payment strategy, could help unemployed Minnesotans learn new careers.

NCC is offering open seats in classes at no cost to new students who can prove that they receive unemployment compensation.

 "This is an experiment," said Joe Opatz, Normandale's President. "I don't know if this has legs or not, but if we can help 40 or 50 or 100 people out of unemployment, then we'll be doing our job."

The process begins when NCC officials look at the courses across the curriculum they will offer next semester that might not meet full capacity. They first open the classes to registered students. After class size is determined, any open seats go at no cost to new students who are unemployed.

Seats in about 40 to 50 classes are being offered. Most classes are in the college's liberal arts, science, humanities and business areas, Opatz said.

Opatz is careful to mention that the program is not perfect. NCC's budget is heavily dependent on student tuition, so it won't let tuition-paying students study for free whether they are unemployed or not.

In fact, other higher education institutions in the state are looking at similar programs. They like the idea that public institutions should help unemployed Minnesotans learn new skills and get a better education, but also being tuition-dependent, they need to admit students who can afford tuition - a ticklish problem for the unemployed.

The schools are also sensitive to any upcoming budget changes made by the governor or legislature. The governor has predicted a rocky road for education funding. Without that knowledge, they say it is foolish to lock in next semester's budget.

Fairness is an issue as well. Should an unemployed student be treated differently than a student feeding a family while working for poverty wages at Wal-Mart? Why shouldn't current students who are unemployed get the tuition break as well as new students who are unemployed?

Some schools have taken similar steps to help the newly unemployed. Anoka Technical College is adding classes in programs that have filled for spring semester. Director of Communications Bobbie Dahlke said the college is also adding night and weekend classes to make it easier for the newly unemployed to attend school.

"We want to create more opportunity for students to get in," she said.

The college is also offering a late start for people recently laid off and who missed the spring semester registration deadline. Instead of starting in January, those classes will start in March and go into the summer.

Anoka is not offering any of these classes at a discounted rate, however. "We don't have the resources," Dahlke said.

Opatz has a "damn the torpedoes" attitude about the situation: "It doesn't cost us any more. The teacher is at the front of the room, the heat is on, the lights are on. The least we can do is help out a group of new students.

"Colleges like ours need to be part of the solution to a changing market and workforce."

Minnesota's unemployment rate is already at an eerily high 6.4 percent.  We need to leverage and strengthen every tool we have, like state colleges & universities, to grow our economy again.

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