Column: Four students help to explain community college enrollment gains

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

Youngsters like Kerrie Maleski, Kayley Schoonmaker, Matt Rubel and Will Tully are part of a major trend in Minnesota. They are among the growing number of students in Minnesota’s two-year community colleges. They’ve also been elected as leaders of the Minnesota State College Student Association.

National research says cost and preparation for good jobs is helping encourage this trend. A 2014 publication of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, “Minnesota Measures,” found that enrollment doubled in Minnesota’s two-year institutions from about 60,000 in 1980 to about 120,000 in 2012.

This helped Minnesota have one of the nation’s highest rates of adults with at least a two-year Associate of Arts degree. According to the MOHE, Minnesota ranks fourth in the nation with 46 percent of people ages 25-64 earning an A.A. degree or higher. Fifty-one percent of Minnesotans ages 25-35 have at least an A.A. degree, second only to Massachusetts, with 55 percent.

Read more from the 2014 MOHE report at

Some students enter two-year colleges immediately, some after a few years working.

Rubel graduated from Robbinsdale Armstrong High School. He wrote that after graduation, he “entered the workforce and obtained a union job working in the shipping industry.” After a few years, he wrote, he realized he was meant for more and enrolled at North Hennepin Community College. Rubel has “a long-term goal of obtaining a law degree and advocating for individuals who are struggling through various life events.”

Maleski, from Ramsey, describes herself as “a 25-year-old nontraditional college student.” She has changed her major from accounting to supervisory management. Maleski also hopes to earn a degree in family and marriage counseling.

Tully wrote that he decided in July 2013 “it was time for a change of scenery.” He didn’t re-enroll at Northwest Florida State College and moved to Bloomington. He’s attending Minneapolis Community Technical College.

Schoonmaker, 20, president of the state association, said she hopes “to teach English classes at a college and continue to be a part of higher education advocacy work.” She started at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids.

According to the MOHE, “The college participation rate of recent high school graduates increased 13 percentage points from 56 percent in 1996 to 69 percent in 2012.” Of those in Minnesota, the single largest group of high school graduates, 38 percent, enrolled in a Minnesota public two-year community or technical college; 20 percent in a Minnesota state university or a University of Minnesota campus; 19 percent enrolled in a Minnesota private college; and 3 percent enrolled in a Minnesota private career school.

A 2011 report, “The Road Ahead: A Look at Trends in the Educational Attainment of Community College Students” – online at – described a dramatic increase in the number enrollments and certificates and degrees (aka credentials) earned.

The report by Christopher Mullin, program director for policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, found that between 1989-90 and 2009-10, enrollment increased 65 percent, while total credentials earned increased 127 percent.

In 2009-10, students attending community colleges earned more than a million credentials; 60 percent were associate and bachelor’s degrees and 40 percent were certificates. The largest numbers of certificates were in health professions, business and management, mechanic and repair tech.

The report found significant increases in enrollment and credentials earned among all racial and ethnic groups: Over the last 20 years, there was a 283 percent increase in credentials earned by African American students, 242 percent increase by American Indian students, 253 percent increase by Asian American students, 440 percent increase by Hispanic students and 90 percent increase by white students.

A recent report by the Georgetown University Center of Education and the Economy ( projected that 74 percent of jobs available in Minnesota through 2020 will require some education beyond high school (compared to 65 percent of jobs nationally). But the vast majority of jobs won’t require a four-year degree.

People like Maleski, Schoonmaker, Rubel and Tully wisely recognize the value of Minnesota’s two-year colleges.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]