To a Higher Degree

Joyce Helens

Guest GSDC Director Contributor, Dr. Joyce Helens: To a Higher Degree
By Joyce Helens, President, St. Cloud Technical & Community College

Occasionally, the GSDC Connections e-letter will include an article from a guest director contributor. The following article is reprinted from the St. Cloud Times “To a Higher Degree” September 27, 2014

Annually, those of us who work at St. Cloud Technical & Community College take a day to come together to plan for the future, both near and far. Although we rely heavily on metrics and data to make decisions, we also ask ourselves hard questions and allow ourselves to dream.

We begin with the most difficult but essential first questions: Why do we exist? And then, Are we still viable? Asking the right questions means making the right decisions!

Asking tough questions about our very existence challenges us not to rest on our successes nor try and preserve something for some self-serving reasons. Because these are "survival" questions, we pay attention to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Rather, we look to our mission and the world in which we live.

Our viability and how we serve the communities we are a part of are critical to our success. But you can imagine how downright scary these conversations can be. We realize, however, that if we are not asking the right questions and serving our communities and students, then there is no reason to exist.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, for the first time in its history, is making public on its website some of the data we use in our decision-making. This marketplace data shows not only in-demand occupations, but academic program/degree and salary placement.

It was not surprising to us that certificate or associate degree graduates with technical skills mastery were in demand and paid well. Although DEED shows wages rise with higher education attainment, it also shows recent hires with two-year degrees, in many cases, are making higher salaries than those with a four-year degree. This is old news to those of us in technically based higher education.

Bill Blazar, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce interim president, predicts this information will be used by students seeking relevant marketplace wage and placement information. I agree. We have had this kind of information available to every prospective SCTCC student for decades. Again, that is nothing new to us. But Blazar also says this data will put pressure on institutions to change and adapt curriculum "so that their graduates are going to meet the demands of the private sector economy."

I disagree not with the idea that higher education must continuously change and adapt for relevance, but with the notion that a bigger stick from the outside can force institutions to do it. The idea that just changing curriculum to meet private sector economy needs is simplistic and continues the liberal arts vs. technical education argument that has unfortunately existed in higher education.

Let's get back to asking the right questions. As a citizen and a worker, what do I need to be successful? There are many answers. Good citizens need a foundation of history and our place in the world. We need big ideas and creative and adaptive ways to put those ideas into practice. We need to know how to choose best paths and contribute to the communities in which we choose to live.

As successful workers, we need to know what we can do best and what we can take pride in doing well. But we also need to know the economy with a short- and long-range view so we can plan to support ourselves and families and have the quality of life we want.

None of these things stand alone. It is a picture of a whole person, not a fragment. At SCTCC we believe this and endeavor to educate the whole person, whether welder, nurse, nuclear technician or machinist.

Creative, adaptive and innovative thinking is nurtured through many avenues. Skills acquisition is part of this process. Graduation is just the beginning of a continuous journey of learning and adapting to a changing world of skills and ideas.

For St. Cloud Technical & Community College, our challenge is to make sure we ask the right questions about why we are here and then make the right decisions regarding educating and training students so they become good citizens and good workers. We also assist all our students in asking those relevant, challenging questions themselves — questions that ultimately will lead them to making the right decisions about the best career path.


Posted on March 23, 2015 .