On Tuesday, Sept. 17, St. Olaf College students and faculty and Northfield townspeople engaged in a dialogue with the Minnesota Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee in Viking Theater.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Terri Bonoff, D- Minn., who represents Minnetonka and Plymouth, stopped at St. Olaf as part of its month-long Minnesota Higher Education “Listening Tour” around the greater Minnesota area in an attempt to gather input from students and interested parties about how to improve the state’s higher education systems. Bonoff was joined by Sen. Greg Clausen, D- Minn., of Dakota County, who is the vice-chair of the committee, and Rep.David Bly ’74, D-Minn., of Northfield.
“We want this to be a living, breathing tour,” said Bonoff, while explaining the aim of their visit to the attendees at the half-full Viking Theater. “I felt the need to get into the field and talk and learn from all of you.”
Clausen’s experience as a public educator and principal piqued his interest in the topic at hand.
“It is extremely important that legislators invest in education because ultimately it will improve the quality of life for our citizens,” Sen. Clausen said.
After receiving an introduction from Student Government Association SGA President John Schwirtz ’14, the panel opened up the discussion of higher education to the audience, inviting listeners to share their stories.
Sebastian Ford ’16 opened up the dialogue by asking the panel how the Minnesota Senate intends to address the issue of funding for groups like TriO, which represent low-income, first-generation college students.
“TriO students need support, and the structure of programs like these is very effective and leads to a much higher success rate for these students,” Sen. Bonoff said. “Because these programs are federally funded, we need to combine forces with congressional representatives. I’d like to see how we can expand programs like TriO so every student has access.”
Students also raised questions about the involvement of the state in private schools like St. Olaf. Sen. Bonoff brought up changes made to the state grant structure this summer, including increasing the monetary cap on various grants; this would allow more financial flexibility to students who wish to attend more expensive private schools.
Political Awareness Committee Coordinator Rachel Palermo ’15 asked what advice the panel would give to students who wish to become more involved with the state’s legislature; she also questioned the effect of student visits to the state capitol for annual events like Day at the Capitol.
“It’s very important that we hear from the public,” Sen. Clausen said. “Setting up an appointment with your representative allows us to hear from you. There are many reasons why people run for office, but, most of all, we want to make sure we are doing the best for our citizens.” Bly also highlighted the importance of making a personal connection with citizens.
“Putting a face to those that we represent is very important,” he said. “We’ve been on a trend of declining state involvement in higher education, and I think that’s really unfortunate.”
Approximately halfway through the session, Bonoff asked the audience members if any of them had had internships, and, if so, if those positions were unpaid.
“We talk a lot about how important it is to have internships, but we also believe you ought to be paid for your work,” she said.
Bonoff then described the idea of paid apprenticeships, where students are em
ployed at companies that help pay for their schooling and then offer them jobs at the end of the program.
“We’re experimenting with this idea,” she said. “We think we should pilot a program like this in Minnesota and get companies to commit to jobs for students.”
When asked about the Obama administration’s recent idea to rank higher education institutions and how this might affect schools in Minnesota, the panel had positive, if somewhat mixed, responses.
Bonoff was fully supportive of the idea and listed several areas that should meet criteria, including graduation rate, default rate, debt-earnings and outlook.
“These are key measurements we think we should require to protect our students,” she said. “We agree with Obama, and I’m anxious to see what they do.” Bly offered a few qualifications to Bonoff’s statement.
“I would recommend a cautious approach to this project because you can’t judge every institution as the same,” he said. “We have to have a broader view of our institutions and look carefully at each individual school.”
At the end of the meeting, students were able to converse briefly with the panel members one-on-one before the committee headed to its next stop, Carleton College. The meeting also proved interesting and useful for students who are not Minnesota natives.
“I was impressed, as an out-of-state student, to learn about the opportunities offered by the state,” said SGA Vice-President Wendy Raymond ’14.
“It really solidified faith in Minnesota legislation,” Palermo said. “To see them make such an effort to have our voices heard really shows that they do care and our voices do matter.”