MCTC Barbering will soon be a program of the past


The Barbering program offers services to the public throughout the week. (Photos: Sydney Foster/City College News)

In fall 2014, MCTC announced that six of its programs would be suspended and phased out. Barbering is one of those programs.

By Robert Ellis

The Shop

The barbershop was one of the first places I visited upon starting MCTC in the fall of 2014. The shop itself is well equipped with standard barber chairs, the red, white and blue barber rotating column outside the door and every clipper and razor an urban barber could want. The students range in age from early twenties to mid-thirties, predominantly African-American and all highly skilled in a variety of styles, techniques and trends .

These students embody our demographics as a school in that, for many, this is a turn toward improving their lives with a skill they can chart a new future with. The atmosphere is like any barbershop you would find in our fair city.

As in any shop around town there is an easy manner and air of relaxation when in the shop. There is always a conversation that varies in topic from stories from the block to which student can beat the other in chess even without their queen. Whatever the administration thinks, whatever we might think, these students find value and pride in the work they do here, a sentiment echoed by their teacher.

Barbering Instructor Josh Kirkpatrick was once a student in MCTC's same program.

Barbering Instructor Josh Kirkpatrick was once a student in MCTC’s same program.

Josh Kirkpatrick is the instructor of the program and will see its final group of students to graduation next year. Kirkpatrick speaks confidently about his students and his pride in his program and his efforts to improve it is evident in his speech and demeanor. He leaves no doubt in his opinion that the program, under his leadership, has not only become a viable road to gainful employment for the students but has also become a value to our student community and the people of our city.

Kirkpatrick took over for the same instructor that, years ago, taught him to wield the clippers with style. Prior to his taking over the program just seventeen students participated between 2010-2012. Out of those only two passed the boards to become state certified barbers. Seven outright failed and eight did not even bother to attempt. That’s a success rate of just 12%.

As an MCTC alumni Kirkpatrick had a keen determination to turn the program around and was told specifically that was his main objective upon his hiring. Between 2013 and the present thirteen students have completed the program, eleven have passed the board and those students are now working in barbershops. The job board, posted in the shop break room, has plenty of postings to support all the students I see in the shop, and the reputation of the program is such that Kirkpatrick attests that he receives several calls per week from shops inquiring of graduating barbers.

Additionally the student barbers have returned a profit of $15,285.00 to the school from fees for services in haircuts, straight razor shaves, shampoos and every barber service you can get at any pro shop. They are part of our Student Resource Center and provide haircuts for job seekers and the homeless while extending the same service to the Salvation Army, MN Adult and Teen Challenge, Project for Pride and Living and countless more.

After spending time here I did not see a program in distress. I did see student barbers that are skilled and professional and display all the intangibles that make a barbershop feel like a barbershop. The community, the stories, the laughing, the easy manner that sets you at ease. I did see an instructor who took up the challenge to get results and rose to that challenge and earned the respect of his students and peers. I see people committed to serving their community through service. Questions then arise. Why this program so small and newly revitalized? Why a program that predominantly serves a population that is so underrepresented in our community and is that not our commitment as the central urban two-year college? Was this a failure of our administrations to live up to those values? Or simply a reality of our financial situation, enrollment woes and a utilitarian attempt by our administration to make a decision best for all at the cost of the few?

The Reasons and Result

Questions beget questions when examining the reasons given by the administration for the barbering program being cut. Was it the fault of administration? Or, upon closer examination, can a case be made that forces outside our campus are influencing these types of decisions nationwide?

On Oct. 27, 2014 Dr. Avelino Mills-Nova, our interim president, notified students via letter and accompanied FAQ that six programs in all would be slated for closure after the balance of currently enrolled students achieves completion. This list included the barbering program.

Specifically for Barbering, the reasons cited were high default rates on federal student loans,  wages for jobs below the published livable wage limit of $14.14 determine by our city, the overall lack of jobs posted. Additionally, cost of operation relative to enrollment. The letter mentions cosmetology programs at for-profit colleges as an alternative. Clear to anybody who is familiar with barbering this comparison is not apples to apple.

The Doctor and the Dean

I greeted Dr. Avelino Mills-Nova on the afternoon of our interview and found a man who both fit and did not fit my expectations all at once. A kindly gentleman of modest height and stature, Dr. Avelino is the type of academic that instantly fits into the stereotypical image of a scholar. The president is soft but confidently spoken, patient with his thoughts and having a gaze that conveys intellect while still being welcoming. We are soon joined by Dean Bob Muster who has overseen the Barbering program through this process.

My first question regarding the possible reinstatement of the program is met with surprise by the dean and president both. Both were confident that it had been communicated clearly that while these programs were announced to be suspended after a two week exploratory period in which open discussions with students and faculty were held, it was then decided with finality the Barbering program along with the other five programs slated were to be discontinued once the balance of students in each complete their courses. This is still the status today.

Mills-Novoa and Muster stand by the aforementioned reasons for the programs being discontinued. Our enrollment is down semester after semester, this is well known. The wage information provided by MN Department of Employment and Development is public knowledge and supports the claim that the average national wage for barbers is below the $14.14 our city determines to be adequate to live here. However, Kirkpatrick can point to studies that show the wage to be slightly higher and, again, these studies cannot quantify the money that can be made “on the side.”

Mills-Novoa and Muster also point out that our accredited barber program was the only one in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. Other programs of the like are offered by private, for-profit, institutions. This speaks to reasons why the student loan default rate was considered in the making of this decision.

A USA Today column from July 2013 points out the fact that 260 colleges and universities in 40 states have students that are more likely to default than to graduate. As a result of the protests of these students nationwide, a Senate inquiry was conducted and sought to confirm these accusations.

The results were highly unfavorable. The 2012 Senate inquiry focuses on for-profit colleges including Minnesota’s own Rasmussen College, Capella and Walden University. The probe also includes 88 community/technical colleges.

The senate probe handed out harsh judgment for these schools. Capella’s online school got off easiest by sidestepping the loan default rate by having one of the lowest for schools in the probe. However, they did show a higher than satisfactory withdrawal rate of students pursuing Bachelor degrees. Also the probe found that Capella spends an “unusually high” amount of revenue on marketing and a “relatively low” amount on online instruction.

When contacted, spokesman Mike Buttry says the comments in the probe are “pretty balanced” and on the withdrawal rates, “We’re seeing exciting progress. But it’s certainly something that we talked a lot about in 2010 when we started to see outcomes we were not happy with.”

He acknowledges the marketing expenditure but mentions Capella does not have the same visibility as non-profit schools with their sports teams, large number of alumni, and campus presence.

Rasmussen Business College, headquartered in Minnetonka, did not fare so well. The probe blasts them for having inflated program cost and an alarming growth in funding through federal student aid while at the same time having 63 percent of the students dropping out before finishing a degree. These results are among the worst in the probe.

When contacted, Vice Chairman Michael Locke says he has “issue” with the data the probe chose to highlight but that improvement was “in the works.” He mentions their one-week orientation is there to make sure students are truly motivated before starting programs saying, “We are disappointed in these rates, and we’ve taken a number of steps to improve those. And I’m delighted that we are seeking improvements.”

What does this have to do with our school? Well, we have “technical” in our name and thus, we have some programs that are similar to the programs at for-profit schools, thus 88 community colleges also appear in the probe. We are not among them.

Many of these schools got the same poor grades the profit schools received and as such, will continue to receive scrutiny for these programs. The main points of this probe are; do the lion’s share of your students, use federal student loans to pay tuition, if so do they graduate into the promised careers and do they pay the taxpayers back for the money borrowed with the salaries gained from said career?

As our chief administrator, Dr. Mills-Novoa attests, MCTC will not be associated with the practice of taking federally backed loans and not delivering a program that has a clear path to success and employment. He points out that federal student loans cannot be erased from debt. This reporter can attest to that. Before coming to MCTC, I worked at a company on a government contract to seek out those that owe back taxes and federal student debt for collection. No bankruptcy, no forgiveness, the choices are repayment or garnishment including wage and tax offset (recapture). Without hesitation, I can attest to the overwhelming number for-profit school students that appeared on my default lists.

While I expected to come against the business realities that every MnSCU school has to acknowledge, I did not anticipate to see the same feelings and sentiments with Josh Kirkpatrick and his students in the shop as I did with Dr. Mills-Novoa and Dean Muster. Both acknowledge MCTC has experienced more losses than these in the last few years and that this counts among the worst.

There was also a message of hope. Like any good leader, Mills-Novoa has plans. With the resources freed up from the cut programs plans can be made for those students that remain. The Student Senate has pushed for a daycare program for MCTC and Mills-Novoa points out that could be a potential use for some of the space. Perhaps renting the additional space for other schools to use, like our kitchen.

Muster and Mills-Novoa point to efforts to create new partnerships with other four and two-year colleges that make it so never again is there a program that has no clear pathway to success. Plans for those partnerships also include ways to spend all four years at the MCTC campus for a BA. Neither gentleman sidesteps the losses but they have plans for new victories.

For the barbers, they will be the last class in a storied program. It could be said the program was flawed in its design more than two decades ago by not having entrepreneurial curriculum built in. Others could say that it was the administration’s job to identify and rectify that. You could point to the previous instructor who also could have advocated for change and done more to ensure program completion and student success.

It is also undeniable that for-profit schools have operated in ways that bring rightful scrutiny to all technical programs that are eligible for federal student aid. This is supported in the probe findings. Money that, at its root, is borrowed from you and me. While our programs were not directly targeted, the senate probe showed that all schools offering technical degrees need to work much, much harder in making sure students graduate to viable and sustainable careers that enrich their lives, not destroy them with debt.

No one I spoke with for this article wanted the barbering program closed. Not the students, not the instructor, not the dean nor the president. I could not uncover any hidden benefit to our college to close these programs. What I did find is a “perfect storm” in which the only decision to made had to be utilitarian in approach.

These six programs, including Barbering, will be cut when the final students graduate. All that can be said for the students that remain at MCTC in other programs and students nationwide is that lessons have been learned by our administration’s, our state’s and our legislators that prevent these “perfect storms” from happening in the future. At the least this is a clear message that students and our government expect results from schools accepting government loans.