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Oleksandr Denysenko was on the road this week, driving a semitrailer truck from Arkansas to Illinois with a load of frozen food.

"I just like my job," said Denysenko, a Ukrainian immigrant who now calls Dakota County home. "I like big American trucks."

He became a truck driver after completing a course at Dakota County Technical College — tuition free, thanks to Dakota County's Workforce Mobility Program.

The pilot program covers tuition at local community colleges for a group of low-income residents. The trial, paid for with $250,000 in American Rescue Plan money, aimed to give people a chance to build career skills and help local employers fill in-demand jobs.

So far, though, fewer than half of the students have completed the coursework. And county and college officials say they have learned that tuition alone isn't enough to help students who face additional challenges, from childcare to transportation, in pursuit of higher education.

"Was it perfect? No. Was it worth doing? I think it really was," said Robert Trewartha, director of customized training at Inver Hills Community College (IHCC) and Dakota County Technical College (DCTC). "The vast majority of those folks [who finished] did find jobs."

Residents were eligible to apply for the program if their family incomes were 2.5 times the federal poverty level or lower — or $30,000 for a family of four. They could take classes at Inver Hills or DCTC in commercial truck driving, certified nursing assistant, boiler operation, phlebotomy, early childhood and youth development, welding or emergency medical technician.

Of the 83 students who enrolled in the summer and fall of 2022, 32 finished their program and 36 never showed up, dropped out or failed. Fifteen are still finishing classes.

The goal was to help residents get jobs, "bringing economic mobility and self-sufficiency to low-income families," said Nadir Abdi, director of employment and economic assistance for Dakota County. "Oftentimes they don't have the opportunity to further their education."

The program also aimed to provide qualified job candidates to employers in fields where workers are scarce, he said.

Outcomes vary by program

Officials said they didn't know what to expect when they started the program, and they sent postcards advertising it to 45,000 households.

"What struck me was just the challenge for folks to get engaged in free training," said Mark Jacobs, Dakota County workforce development director.

Many program participants were older than traditional student age, had never attended college or were first in their family to experience higher education, officials said. Some students were immigrants or refugees.

Outcomes varied by program of study.

Seven out of nine students completed the boiler operation class, and those seven all got jobs. Five out of seven in the welding program finished. With the truck driving and nursing classes, just under half finished. Only one out of 14 finished the EMT training class.

No one completed the early childhood and youth development class, which was switched to online at the last minute — a change official think might have affected participation.

Rosemarie Park, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development who studies adult education and literacy, said the Dakota County numbers seemed "par for the course" for a program serving a lower-income population.

"If you're a low-income person, life is very good at throwing you a curve," she said. "You're trying to deal with basic needs all the time."

Plus, Park said, many in this group have had negative experiences with school.

"Not everybody is a self-directed learner," she said.

The solution is to give people the structure and support to be successful, Park said, but this is expensive for institutions to do.

Lessons learned

Dakota County and college officials say their experience confirmed students need more support up front.

Trewartha noted that the truck driving program had a "navigator" — a staff person from the college — in place to touch base with students and answer questions. That helped a lot, he said.

"If there was a lesson learned from the program, it would have been to be a little more staff intensive for that navigating people through the process," he said.

Michael Berndt, president of both Inver Hills and DCTC, said the program tried to streamline admission to the colleges, cutting out some paperwork and prerequisites. But, he said, it might make sense to add some steps back in, such as assigning students a counselor and holding an orientation.

The students needed "concierge-level supports," he said, adding that something like a weekly check-in with a college staff person could make a difference, he said.

Abdi said that any future program might want to incorporate pre-testing to ensure students have the basic skills to do well.

He added that "there's an appetite across the state and probably the country" for programs like this, as older workers retire and companies need younger people to replace them.

The Dakota County pilot was based on a similar effort that boosted enrollment at Minnesota State's Pine Technical and Community College. Jacobs said now other counties, including Wright, are interested in replicating it.

Ariyanna Franklin, 20, who completed phlebotomy classes at DCTC along with her mother, Dariya, is now looking for a job in the field. She had struggled in school and took a year off after graduation, but decided to pursue the college courses after hearing about the Dakota County program.

"It did push me more to do it once I saw that I could do it through that, with the county paying for it," Franklin said.