Protect students’ rights to choose what they want to learn By Tim Blighton

This semester, the MNSCU Board is preparing to terminate all Associate Arts Degrees with Emphasis across the breadth of their governance, which includes twenty-four two-year colleges, like Minneapolis Community & Technical College (MCTC), and seven state universities, all of which serve, according to MNSCU’s own About Us webpage, “250,000 students in credit-based courses (and) overall produces about 33,500 graduates each year.” The effect would hobble a growing population of students struggling to attend or return to college while balancing the responsibilities of work and families.

Two year colleges have always offered occupational-based programs for students to learn a viable set of skills to ensure a good chance in the marketplace after graduation. For students who enroll in an Associate Arts program at one of the MNSCU institutions, there are conflicting messages delivered to students by experts. On one hand, Harvard’s “Pathway to Prosperity” Project acknowledges the issue that not every student going to college requires a four year degree and that “only four in ten Americans have obtained an associates or bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties…and less than thirty percent of those who enroll in community college succeed in obtaining associates degree within three years.” Three years being the traditional timeline to achieve an Associate’s. The project’s report goes on to suggest that President Barack Obama’s “college for all’ agenda will fail without stronger career-oriented programs that lead to occupational credentials.

The conflicting second message is exemplified in an article from US News & World Reports’ education section entitled “When Do I Need to Pick a Major,” where Nancy Meislahn, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for Wesleyan University, tells incoming students facing the pressures to declare a major to “write in your applications about all the things that interest you. We seek curious and creative students, well prepared to explore across the curriculum.” Eric Furda, Dean of Admissions and the University of Pennsylvania, expands on this advice by noting “this sense of ‘undecidedness’ or ‘undecided’ can come from a strong interest in multiple fields”, and that “most faculty and departments in the liberal arts and sciences will encourage you to explore your interests by taking courses not even offered at most high schools and you may discover new fields of interest, even if you ‘know what you want to study.’”

This means that students should and are encouraged to explore courses their college or university offers, whether the student is attending a Nursing Program or taking generals at a college like MCTC or Normandale, while keeping an eye on a possible goal. My story mirrors this process. Returning to MCTC after twelve years, I wanted to major in English with focus on creative writing and poetry. My hopes included transferring to Hamline University because of their nationally acclaimed creative writing program. The first semester, I took Beginning Spanish 1000 to fulfill a foreign language requirement. Researching poetry and literature from Spain as well as Central and South America, I became enthralled with writers like Federico Garcia Lorca, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges and others. This was reinforced by the observation that many poets I admired not only spoke more than one language, but have or had translated other poets’ works into their native tongue or vice versa. This firm grasp poets had of multiple languages reinforced my love for Spanish, so I continued taking Spanish classes. A year later, after co-starting a writers’ club and workshop on campus, a friend of mine, who also attended MCTC, introduced me to his guitar instructor. I’ve taken guitar lessons every semester, on or off campus since, intrigued not only by the creation of music, but also by the possibility in its inclusion with poetry and other performance art. The year after starting guitar, I switched to full time as a student and encountered spoken word artists and slam poets at a poetry workshop our club sponsored. This further piqued my interest in performance art, steering me away from the page and toward the microphone.  I assisted other students in the start up of a Spoken Word club and now function as an officer in both clubs.

My story is not uncommon. Purdue University’s Center for Career Opportunities states on its web page “Choosing a Major: How to Pick the Right Major and More” that “research has shown that 80 percent of entering college students admit that they are not certain what they want to major in, even if they have declared a major. Before graduation over 50 percent of college students change their major at least once.” This means that it is natural and encouraged by at least some institutions of higher education to explore the possibilities of courses offered, to explore the possibilities of the individuals future.

So if promiscuity among disciplines is encouraged, is a one-night stand in the form of one philosophy class or one creative writing class or one public speaking class or one African American History class enough to satisfy the decision making process about a student’s future who is simultaneously told to succeed through an occupational-based program that may not be the life’s passion? Enter Associate of Arts with Emphasis degrees, especially at MCTC. Each emphasis is a program still requiring the student to take the standard associate or transfer-based curriculum, including forays into science, math, while fulfilling some of the areas like global perspectives requirements with classes focused on a deeper exploration of a given discipline. In Megan Garber’s article “Can Better Data Keep Students from Dropping out of College” for the Atlantic, Charles Thornburgh, former senior executive at Kaplan Higher Education, says regarding the high rate of students who do not obtain a college degree that “students are operating in an information vacuum.” It’s very easy to be spectacularly non-strategic when it comes to selecting the courses and majors that will inform what students learn — and, in turn, what career paths they take (or don’t take), particularly as the college experience becomes less about setting four years aside to explore, and more about fitting education in with jobs/kids/etc., making smart decisions about courses will have a direct bearing, Thornburgh argues, on students’ ability to stay in school.

MCTC, touted as possessing one of the most diverse student population where, according to MCTC’s own fact sheet, only 43.6 percent of the students are white in ethnicity, the average age of attending students is 28, Dakota County Technical and Hennepin Technical have an average student age of 31, Metropolitan State University is 32, while 38 percent of students at Inver Hills are termed “adult learners,” and the Minnesota Office of Higher Education declares that “undergraduates aged 25-34 have increased dramatically in recent years and are enrolling in increasing numbers at two year institutions.” Therefore a substantial existing and potential portion of MNSCU’s student population will be affected by this termination as they grapple with finding the balance they need to succeed at either transferring or obtaining a degree. Colleges that rank attendance in the different majors, again like Normandale’s and MCTC, list Liberal Arts as the highest ranking declared major. This echoes students’ need to walk that fine line between exploration when one of MCTC’s programs like Nursing or Addiction Counseling doesn’t fit the bill, and the ability to still focus and obtain some form of direction.

It is understandable that the lack of transfer articulation can be viewed as selling students a false bill of goods. MNSCU states in its educational policies under “Undergraduate Course Credit Transfer (part 3, subpart A, Determining Course Comparability or Equivalency)” that “the course to be transferred must be comparable in nature, content and level to courses offered by the receiving institution.  In evaluating courses for transfer equivalency, the standard for review should be not less than 75 percent comparability of course content.  For courses in a sequence, students need sufficient preparation to succeed in the next course in the sequence.” This level of comparability may keep certain AAs with emphasis from receiving articulation. Yet, it should be noted that the first part bears repeating: “must be comparable in nature, content and level to courses offered by the receiving institution.” If an MCTC student receives the AA with emphasis in African Diaspora, she may have been stimulated in that exploration to transfer and enroll in the Social Justice Program at Hamline or the School of Social Work at the University of Minnesota. Or a student with the emphasis in Communications Studies might transfer and declare a political science major, journalism/broadcasting/mass media major or business where interpersonal communication and public speaking skills are essential in day-to-day activities. The worst case scenario: the student completes her requirements to either transfer or obtain an associates degree and gains a little wisdom about what she does not want to do.

With exception of degrees like emphasis in philosophy or creative writing, many of the AA’s with emphasis at MCTC started this semester (Fall 2012) and probably require more time to achieve articulation with other institutions; something MNSCU could channel their energies to help build. Continuing in subpart C of MNSCU’s document regarding transferring occupational or professional course credits, it clearly states “each system college or university shall accept in transfer as electives up to 16 semester credits of occupational and/or professional courses which are not comparable or not equivalent to specific courses taught at the receiving college or university.”  Sixteen credits. That’s all. The extra fifteen credits assigned to the emphasis associates compared to the transfer base requirement, indicating that a focused AA with emphasis with an extra 15 credits compared to the transfer requirements parallels those sixteen elective credits allotted for technical programs equating Harvard’s focus on occupational education and the student’s need to explore. If we can create language to support the diversity of programs at our two year colleges, like MCTC, it should stand to reason that such leeway ought to be given to the Liberal Arts where MCTC receives the highest amount of declaration among students.

In conclusion, please reconsider the termination of the existing programs. Instead, let us look at the efforts faculty and their departments have put forth to address this complex issue of with regards to curriculum, and discern ways to support their ground level efforts, not only reinforcing our belief in their wisdom and artistry, but also in the individual student’s ability to discover the future they want at the many institutions that comprise MNSCU. Thank you for your time and consideration.