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– After decades of crossing paths in Minnesota higher education, it may have seemed Patricia Rogers and Barbara McDonald were bound for different worlds when they took on their new roles here this year — McDonald as president of the private, four-year College of St. Scholastica and Rogers as president of two-year Lake Superior College.

Yet while it seems an unlikely partnership on paper, their futures are more intertwined than ever.

“Between the institutions, we could really do a lot together and really think about how to create that workforce for the future,” McDonald said.

Health care is the largest area of study at both schools, and the largest and fastest-growing industry in Duluth. With employers desperately seeking more trained and licensed workers, and both schools always looking for more students, the timing is right for a team-up.

“We’re not really in competition with each other, we are here to serve and to work together,” Rogers said. “And in health care, there’s no one institution that can do it all.”

While it remains uncommon for community college students to transfer to private institutions, a report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found there is a deep pool of potential at two-year schools: “Community college transfer students are ready to meet selective institutions’ rigorous academic standards and earn their bachelor’s degree,” researcher Jennifer Glynn discovered.

In Duluth, McDonald said, there is the “gift of geography” to build that bridge.

“It’s not unusual, many institutions reach out and try to do this work, but the fact we’re in the same community is great,” she said.

Rogers comes from Winona State University, where she was provost and vice president for academic affairs since 2013. McDonald was president of North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park since 2015. Together they were in the Minnesota State Colleges and University system for more than 20 years and became good friends in that time.

During the first few weeks of the semester, McDonald and Rogers would call each other to see where there were opportunities to work together. Or just to talk.

“It’s very helpful to have someone you know; we know each other very well,” Rogers said. “It’s a good opportunity to just have those conversations that sometimes you need to have once in a while to check in and see how you’re doing.”

The pair sat down in McDonald’s office earlier this fall to talk about what brought them here and how they’re going to bring their respective colleges into the future.

Why they took the job

Rogers: “I’ve always had this passion for getting people not only out of poverty, but getting them into that pathway that best helps them meet their potential. Lake Superior College is so connected to the community, very much focused on workforce. It’s just an obvious next step — plus, it’s a beautiful place to live.”

McDonald: “I did my first and second year here — I really loved my time here, and in particular I think the Benedictine values really struck home for me. It was a bit of coming home, and it was a good time in my career for this transition.”

Five-year plans

McDonald: It’s all about pathways and creating avenues for students. Where we’re seeing growth is in the doctoral level, and we’re looking at some additional graduate programming online. So we’re looking at the local community but also at how we can serve the state of Minnesota as well through our extended sites.

Rogers: The plan is to expand opportunities for students and use the power of a community college to do that, because we can reach maybe a little bit differently into middle and high schools. If I’m a seventh-grader, and my parents have no idea how to help me, we can bring those families along. Now I can see a pathway to my first credential, second credential, and beyond to how do I get to my doctorate?

Holding on to graduates

Rogers: We’ve been ramping up that conversation about not only higher ed’s responsibility and role but what is business and industry’s role in this? Are they paying market wages? Is there some other opportunity for internships and doing real-world work? Instead of it being a giant Plinko game where you hope you’re bouncing into the right thing, we’re really going to guide that path.

McDonald: What we’ve been focusing on is the idea of early internships and early experience with employers. Once they start a relationship, at any level — two-year, four-year, graduate school — an employer is more likely to hire that person. And if we can do that sort of experiential learning early on, they’re much more likely to stay.

Growing

McDonald: “We’d like to see enrollment grow, but we need to do that strategically — how can we form intentional partnerships to make sure we’re paying attention to needs in the community?”

Rogers: Along with enrollment growth is retention. I have programs where employers are hiring students out of their first year. That’s great for that first job, but what does it do for that individual down the road? We want to make sure you can still finish that credential along with going in and having that job and that employers understand that.

Partnering their schools

Rogers: There are things that people want to do in health care that is beyond nursing, and they do have aspirations to move on and get the bachelor’s and master’s. So for us to work together and provide those pathways — that’s the exciting part for us.

McDonald: In just the field of physical therapy, our students are working in their clinics and their students are working in our clinics, and we’re partnering in terms of resources and seeing how we can share resources, especially in high-cost fields.

Brooks Johnson • 612-673-4229