We Cannot Lose If We Focus on Student Needs

03/12/2013 01:03 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2013

As with everything in life, education is complex. There are all the different types of institutions, public and private, from preschool and K-12, colleges and universities, training and proprietary schools. There is no one educational model or learning system that everyone follows. In Minnesota alone, we have nearly 200 public and private post-secondary institutions. Saint Paul College is a community and technical college within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system that consists of 54 campuses in 47 different communities, serving about 277,000 students in credit based courses each year. Reporting on the efficacy of an educational institution or system is even more complex, and on a national scale there is no absolute method that every institution uses for their measurements of success.

Lines on a graph, numbers on a spreadsheet, action analytics and statistics in a report are all necessary things to quantify information to pass along, and to help us be accountable. Sometimes these things are persuasive. Sometimes these figures and numbers are needed to summarize progress, evaluate effectiveness, show trends. Sometimes these facts just fall to a cold and unyielding place.

But when we conjure up a face to align with each number, each statistic, when we think of the individuals that make up the percentages in a chart, we cannot lose. In fact, putting a face on each and every statistic and number changes everything. It makes it all very personal. Instead of "Don't take this personally," we in education need to take it personally. I walk the halls of our campus daily so that I can see how the students navigate our campus, how they interact with each other, and as a way of interjecting myself into their campus experience. I talk with our students. I talk with our faculty and staff. There is a common thread that is often palpable. Education. Knowledge. Mastery of information. It's exciting. It is illuminating. It is real.

What's also very real are the funding cuts, budget tightening, and the tight-rope-walk we must make of cost-cutting efficiencies, being fiscally responsible and accountable, while ensuring that the educational experience for our students is still extraordinary. Over the past 12 years, Minnesota has seen cuts to higher education of 48 percent -- more than double the national average. By 2018, nearly 70 percent of jobs in Minnesota will require a post-secondary credential, yet only 40 percent of working-age adults in Minnesota have a post-secondary degree. Providing the employers in our state with graduates who are skilled and well prepared is essential to a healthy economy and it is essential for Saint Paul College and all of our Metro colleges alike. Providing the opportunity to all for an affordable and quality education is the best way out of poverty.

We are fortunate to have the advantage of being a community and technical college, especially where our campus and classes are still small enough to meet the needs of individuals. Where our faculty connect with students using interactive and collaborative teaching methods, where they know the names of each and every one of their students. Where our faculty know the individuals in their classrooms and often go above and beyond any curricula to reach their students and help them discover the excitement, that spark of engagement in new subjects, new material; opening students' eyes to realize their own possibilities, their own potential. Where our staff provide personalized service to help students navigate and comprehend collegiate expectations, sometimes helping them to get headed in the right direction when an unexpected life crisis occurs. Our faculty and staff know that their investments of time and assistance, and focus on the individual helps students succeed when the students were even doubtful of themselves. On our campus, we see success as being achieved one student at a time.

This requires us to remain mission-centric. Our job is to prepare our students. Our calling and purpose is to send them on their way with the tools and skill sets they will need to succeed on their chosen path. Our job is to work closely with employers in business and industry to make sure we are keeping up with the technology and skills needed by our students. Our job is to set up our students for success. When we lose sight of what students need in order to be successful in today's world, we set them up for failure. Our job is to open up the world of our students to see the benefits of hard work, of applying what they have learned to the work place. Our job is also to teach them the benefits of collaboration, analytical thinking, to think outside the box, and to solve problems. We cannot lose if we focus on student needs.

Just a few weeks ago, Saint Paul College hosted the annual Friends of Saint Paul College Legislative Breakfast. Our Culinary Arts faculty and students and our cafeteria staff did a wonderful job of preparing a marvelous breakfast. We had an excellent turn out by our faculty and staff leaders, business and industry partners, student leaders, and several legislators from our district. Chancellor Rosenstone made a presentation about MnSCU's legislative agenda, a student spoke about her wonderful experiences at Saint Paul College, an employer spoke about the high quality of students he hires from our Machine Tool Technology program.

Listening to our student and employer testimonials reminded me -- and confirmed to me -- why we come to work every day. Their testimonials were not unique -- they are truly representative of what our students and employers experience. We are determined to create opportunities for our students to find their way, their calling, and to fulfill their dreams; and determined to help our business and industry partners remain competitive by expanding their capacity for delivering goods and services that lead to gainful employment. As I have always maintained, if the decisions we are making at Saint Paul College are good for our students and our community of stakeholders, then we are collectively making great decisions at the College. The end result is for our communities to prosper and for our populace to live a better life. I guess that's why, for over 100 years, it has been easy for all of us who pass through these doors to uphold Saint Paul College's mission, which is to provide "Education for Employment... Education for Life."