Downtown St. Paul University Reinvents Itself After 50 Years | Minnesota News

By FREDERICK MELO, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — It’s with no small amount of pride that Metropolitan State University President Ginny Arthur explains that of the 97 new Black computer science graduates in Minnesota a few years ago, 42 of them graduated from Metro State. And many came from modest means.

“That’s the impact that we have — computer science, a well-paying field,” Arthur said. “We just raised that many families to the middle class, or better.”

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And it’s with no small amount of consternation that Arthur acknowledges many employers remain oblivious. Together with three satellite locations, the compact Dayton’s Bluff campus overlooking downtown St. Paul draws upwards of 10,000 students annually, but even at a time of an intense labor shortage, it’s a been bit of a black box to too many in the private sector.

“The business community will say, ‘Metro State, do you offer two-year degrees, four-year degrees?’ They just don’t know much about us,” said Arthur, who hired a new marketing manager months after being appointed president four years ago. “We needed a more modern look.”

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That updated look rolled out last month, in line with Metro State’s 50th anniversary, with a colorful new logo, refreshed website and billboard ad campaign. The administration had even flirted with a possible name change, an option many faculty roundly rejected last year in a discussion that became so contentious, the administration took down the online discussion board.

The goal of the new marketing push is to introduce the four-year university to a new generation of working undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students, as well as prospective employers, against the somewhat-volatile backdrop of a pandemic-era economy, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

And the transfer-heavy university — which into the 1990s only accepted undergrads for the latter two years of their four-year degree — is leaning into middle age differently than some of its peers. More than two years into the pandemic, upwards of two-thirds of all Metro State classes remain online.

“It’s really a combination of what works for students, and our concerns about safety,” Arthur explained. “On the student side, these are working adults. Most of them have children at home, and that’s been so uncertain during the pandemic, that they find (remote class) really convenient.”

A national labor shortage has employers hunting more eagerly than ever for well-trained graduates, and wages and salaries on the rise.

“The majority of (Metro State students) enter at the poverty level, and they track them five years after graduating … and the vast majority have entered the middle class or above,” said B Kyle, president and chief executive officer of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, who grew up in a low-income family and worked at the university as a high school student intern. “That translates to 50,000 alumni, and together they represent over $4 billion in tax base. The majority — 85 percent — stay in Minnesota.”

Still, Metro State’s commuter campuses haven’t been immune to declining national enrollment in higher education. The school enrolled 1,200 fewer students last year than it did five years ago, but it still boasts higher enrollment and smaller declines than other Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system schools.

It’s made some significant pivots during the public health crisis, and has been an early adapter to changes such as remote learning, which are likely to stick around.

“We are grappling like any other organization these days with what is it going to mean long term for our workforce, and what’s it going to mean for our use of space? We’ve discovered, like any other employer, there’s a lot of work that people can do from their home,” Arthur said. “It’s evident in some national studies that people might be even more productive. But students may still want to come in person for that sense of place, and we’re going to struggle with that balance. This sense of connection is very important to their success.”

Born in a one-room classroom above a downtown St. Paul pharmacy in 1971, Metro State currently has more than 10,000 students across four locations in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park, though the primary campus remains in Dayton’s Bluff, overlooking downtown St. Paul and the Mississippi River.

The campus is getting younger and more diverse. More than half of those enrolled are students of color, 50 percent are eligible for the federal low-income Pell Grant, and 59 percent attend school part time. The average student age is 30 and dropping.

Nevertheless, it still opens its arms to older students. At the age of 74, former WCCO-TV news anchor Don Shelby fulfilled a lifelong dream and received his undergraduate degree last fall.

“We are a place where rigorous academic work occurs,” Arthur said. “Sometimes we’re underestimated on that point. We’re highly inclusive. Sometimes people succeed at Metro State when they haven’t at other places. In our mission and vision statement, we talk about our commitment to being an anti-racist learning community, (and that’s been) since the late 1990s or early 2000s.”

Arthur hired marketing director Audrey Bergengren — who had held similar roles for St. Paul College, Minnehaha Academy and Fairview Southdale Hospital — in mid-2019, even before the pandemic. The goal is to raise the school’s profile at a difficult period in the industry.

Getting the attention of state lawmakers will be key in the days ahead. A new lab science building opened off East Seventh Street in 2016, and school officials are hoping that the state Legislature smiles upon their ask for $4.3 million in state bonding dollars to build out a regional cybersecurity training facility — also housed within the College of Sciences — in what had been the university’s old cafeteria.

Even with general enrollment dipping, computer science and cybersecurity classes remain near capacity, though some students are lured away by lucrative careers before graduating.

“There we have students who say, ‘The demands for my time are so great because of the shortage of workers,’ or, ‘I’m making good money, getting a degree is not my priority, not right now.’ We remain optimistic that trend will turn around,” Arthur said. “The return to getting a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree is well worth it.”

While many classes remain online, the hands-on components of Metro State’s nursing classes and lab classes are still held in person, as they have been since at least late 2020.

Cesar Forero, 24, of Minneapolis, studied at Lake Superior College in Duluth before transferring to Metro State.

“You can see the difference in equipment,” said Forero, looking out from behind safety goggles toward the end of an environmental chemistry lab on Monday. Forero, who grew up in Colombia, recalled the intricacies of seeing a hands-on experiment in organic chemistry up close instead of on a screen. “It was mind-blowing.”

Kate Ries, an associate professor of natural sciences, said she’s equally blown away by students like Forero.

“I love teaching at Metro State because our students are special,” said Ries, who taught classes at five private and community colleges in Minnesota before joining the permanent faculty at Metro State. “Working, caregiving and showing up every single day no matter what else is happening in their lives. If they can show up, I can show up.”

Meanwhile, a new master’s program in special education is in the works within the School of Urban Education.

Depending in part upon the outcome of state bonding efforts, and a possible shift in location for an on-campus bookstore to the student center, a humble trailer at Maria Avenue and East Seventh Street housing the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship could be removed and replaced with a new building — a spacious addition to St. John’s Hall.

The new building would house modern art studios, new child development and cognitive psychology labs and other services related to social work and human services career tracts, including the school’s alcohol and drug counseling programs. The institute would move into the old bookstore space, with the goal of improving its connection to the neighborhood and the city’s East Side.

The new structure would replace a longstanding lease on Energy Park Drive in St. Paul, which would mean giving up the Midway campus entirely.

“We are looking at a facilities project which would create more space in the Dayton’s Bluff campus and get us out of Midway, because that’s a leased facility and that’s pretty costly,” Arthur said. “We would rather consolidate here, and give students more access to the main campus.”

According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, combined graduate and undergraduate enrollment at both public and private institutions of higher learning statewide peaked at more than 309,000 students in 2010, coming out of the last major recession.

Statewide enrollment has fallen annually ever since to reach a low of fewer than 220,000 students in 2020. In particular, undergraduate enrollment for students of color and Indigenous groups fell in the fall of 2020, reversing recent gains.

Metro State hasn’t been immune. A campus headcount in 2017 showed 11,342 students enrolled. The decline has been gradual, and annual, reaching a recent low last year of 10,095 students.

“We’re in the Midwest, and we know that we’re in an area of the country where it’s been predicted. We’ve talked about the enrollment cliff coming for about five or six years,” Arthur said. “For these adult students who are parents, who are working if they can, the strains of the pandemic have really caused that to dip.”

Years before COVID-19 became a household word, Metro State’s Center for Online Learning introduced remote learning to students who might otherwise be hard-pressed to attend class in person.

In 2020, CollegeNet — a Portland, Ore.-based company specializing in university technology — ranked Metro State in the top 3 percent of colleges and universities nationwide for its “Social Mobility Index,” which measures the likelihood low-income students will move into the middle class.

“We think we have a good quality of life in the Twin Cities, and to maintain that, we need to maintain educated residents,” Arthur said.

Much of what Metro State deems its “community faculty” is composed of practitioners in their field. Kris Ehresmann, the long-time director of infectious disease response for the Minnesota Department of Health, taught public health classes in the nursing program until the pandemic turned her into a co-pilot of sorts for the state’s COVID response.

“I think she got a little busy,” Arthur quipped.

Along a similar vein, cybersecurity classes are taught by the chief information security officer for the state of Minnesota.

“It’s a part of our educational philosophy to bring education to life that way,” Arthur said. “Metro State was a pioneer in experiential learning. When Metro State started giving credits for internships, this was scandalous in higher education. Now, of course, everybody does it.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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