Neal St. Anthony
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Rich Wagner, a one-time college dropout who became an electrician in the Navy, is the persuasive president of Dunwoody College of Technology.

Wagner who earned graduate degrees in business and education after his Navy stint, started teaching electronics at Dunwoody in 1995 after working in business. He has led Dunwoody since 2009.

Dunwoody’s growth has been constrained by its century-old building, just west of downtown. The school is underway on the first phase of a remodel approaching $40 million over several years.

Crews from Mortenson, whose founder, M.A. Mortenson, was a carpenter and 1925 Dunwoody graduate, are converting the old gymnasium into a two-level 24,000 square-foot “flexible learning and collaboration space,” a welcome center and commons area in a building that offers little in the way of amenities.

It’s the $10 million first phase of a plan to make Dunwoody a modern, more functional institution.

“We don’t have to look like the Harvard faculty club,” quipped Wagner, 57. “We are a hands-on industrial school. We also are a private, nonprofit college and we have to look and feel like the valuable educational experience we provide.”

Dunwoody, which recently launched four-year degrees in mechanical and software engineering, to be followed in the fall by electrical engineering, has seen enrollment swell from 1,070 to 1,302 students over the last three years.

Not many Minnesota private colleges are growing. The Dunwoody goal is to add 300-plus students over the next four years, thanks partly to the renovation and new and enhanced programs.

Moreover, there’s tremendous employer demand for skilled, accredited workers in STEM careers rooted in science, technology, engineering and math.

Dunwoody offers several-month certificates, as well as two- or four-year degrees in fields such as automotive service, computer technology, construction sciences, robotics, building trades, electronics engineering and machine tool technology.

Tuition ranges from $18,000 to $22,000 a year, with need-based scholarships available. And the job-placement rate is 98 percent in fields that pay an average starting salary of nearly $45,000, better by far than the average liberal arts graduate can do as a barista, for example. Some jobs for which Dunwoody trains pay $75,000-plus within a few years.

“We don’t offer programs that lead to low-paying jobs,” Wagner said. “We don’t mind debt if it’s the right amount and you get a job that’s good enough to cover your rent, car payment and student loan.”

The overhaul of Dunwoody is the first comprehensive remodel of the somewhat antiquated facility.

Collaboration with stakeholders and Credo Campus Planning and Architecture, which specializes in higher-education facilities, gives Dunwoody a road map to delivering a better facility and experience for students, Wagner said.

The once nearly all white, male student body has diversified.

The late Leon Rankin, a 1960s Dunwoody graduate, was one of Minnesota’s first black master electricians and contractors. Rankin finished his career as an administrator and mentor at Dunwoody. Rankin and colleagues designed Dunwoody’s Youth Career Awareness Program (YCAP).

It has helped attract 2,000-plus underrepresented high school students to Dunwoody for six-week paid internships to explore technical education and career opportunities.

More than 1,300 of those students have gone on to earn degrees at Dunwoody or elsewhere.

Partly as a result, students of color make up more than 22 percent of the Dunwoody student body. Women are approaching 20 percent. The average age is 24.

“A more diverse population makes for a better workforce,” Wagner said.

Training and employment also closes the opportunity and wage gap between whites and minorities.

Dunwoody’s revenue last fiscal year was $29 million, including 15 percent from philanthropy.

Wagner and others are appealing to graduates, friends, employers and foundations to fund the Dunwoody modernization. Dunwoody was started in 1914 by William and Kate Dunwoody, a millionaire couple who made money in milling and donated most of it to build Dunwoody, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

These have proved excellent investments for generations.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.