Speak out in support of education

Published 10:40 am Monday, May 11, 2015

Dr. Adenuga Atewologun

Riverland president

On a recent trip to the Capitol, I visited with all five of the legislators that represent Riverland Community College’s campus communities in Albert Lea, Austin and Owatonna. Despite their busy schedules, Sens. Vicki Jensen and Dan Sparks, and Reps. Peggy Bennett, John Petersburg and Jeanne Poppe took the time to listen to our needs. Some had to step out of caucus to meet, showing their passion for education. They understand the challenges facing our region.



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The legislative session is just weeks from completion. Legislators are considering many important investments, among them funding for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, which of course includes our three Riverland campuses in Albert Lea, Austin and Owatonna. We need to urge our legislators to help all of us meet the challenge of educating all Minnesotans and fill the regional workforce gap by moving the funding allocation more toward 50/50 funding from the state. Riverland understands that a large part of the 50 percent non-state funding must be through tuition and public-private partnerships.

As a community college, Riverland has worked hard to build strong partnerships in the communities we serve. Recently, Riverland has accepted monetary and/or equipment donations from companies like Knutson Construction, Lou Rich, Federated Insurance, Cold Spring Granite, AT&T, PPG and Auto Body Specialists, to name only a few that have donated this year to help our academic programming and students thrive.

Since 2010, The Hormel Foundation has provided $1 million to fund the Cycles for Success scholarship program at Riverland. Cycles for Success supports high school graduates who typically would not pursue postsecondary education because of financial barriers. The program helps to increase high school graduation rates, college-readiness levels, and participation rates in postsecondary education. Each year more than 85 students benefit from this scholarship program.

The Hormel Foundation also supports Riverland’s “Be Your Best Summer Prep Academy,” a summer bridge program that helps students improve their academic skills in preparation for college. Focusing on minority and other traditionally underrepresented students, the Foundation’s $40,000 annual investment has advanced this program into an award-winning best practice that has successfully served more than 150 students.

These programs illustrate some of the powerful ways that Riverland Community College partnerships can provide opportunities for all Minnesotans to create a better future for themselves, for their families, and for their communities. Yet, resources remain a challenge. Our faculty and staff are dedicated to Riverland’s mission to inspire personal success through education. Despite students’ circumstances, they deserve excellence in teaching, scholarship and service without acquiring debt that may cripple their earnings for years to come.

Our colleges and universities have two primary sources of funding: tuition from students and appropriations from the state of Minnesota. Thanks to the legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton, we have frozen tuition for the last two years, making college a lot more affordable for students in our campus communities. With the exception of a funding increase last session, over the past 15 years, state support for higher education has been on a steep decline. Since 1999, Minnesota has cut funding by 53 percent. We used to lead the nation when it came to supporting our state colleges and universities but now we lag far behind. We were 21 percent above the national average and now we are 20 percent below that average. Even with the outstanding partnerships and donations from companies like those listed above, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain quality programming and facilities that our students deserve.

Higher education is at a crossroads. Our ability to offer these opportunities has never been more important. Within five years, 74 percent of the jobs in Minnesota will require some postsecondary credentials. At a time when the demographics of the state are such that 70 percent of our growth will come from underserved populations, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is the only resource able to respond. Our 24 colleges and  seven universities serve more first-generation students, more students of color and American Indian students, more low-income students, and more veterans than all of Minnesota’s other higher education options — combined.

This year, Riverland Community College celebrates our 75th anniversary. We are one year into a strategic plan that will ensure that we serve students for the next 75 years and beyond.

I urge you to become involved in the many investments being considered this legislative session and hope you will keep higher education in mind. Making access to college possible for all Minnesotans, meeting the future workforce needs of Minnesota, and protecting our ability to deliver programs to make that happen — these are all things worthy of our investment.