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Changes afoot at Central Lakes College

It's a time of transition and change at Central Lakes College. Recently, the college announced it was suspending its photo technology program in the spring of 2017, the result of an evaluation process that looks at factors including enrollment hi...

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It's a time of transition and change at Central Lakes College.

Recently, the college announced it was suspending its photo technology program in the spring of 2017, the result of an evaluation process that looks at factors including enrollment history, long-term trends and employment outlook.

CLC President Larry Lundblad said the announcement is the result of a program prioritization process that started in the spring of 2014. The college evaluated all of its programs systematically and looked at criteria including number of students in the program, career placement success and ability to transfer credits to another college or university.

The college color-coded each program, Lundblad said. Red programs have work to do, amber programs are OK but there are warning signs and green programs are in good shape.

There were more amber and red programs than green programs, Lundblad admitted. But in some of those cases, a program only needs more students to rebound.

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"If the numbers come back next fall, they would move a category or two," Lundblad said.

Part of the reason for waning numbers in a program could be the curriculum is out of sync with what's needed in the field, Lundblad said. Moving portions of the program online or adding certain things could help a program grow.

"That's the case with a couple of our liberal arts disciplines," Lundblad said. "We're finding a number of our students are taking online courses from other institutions because we're not offering them here."

CLC's programs are also evaluated in comparison to similar programs in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Lundblad said, so it's important the college's programs are healthy and competitive. Funding is also based on how those programs rank in relation to those other programs.

For the photo technology program, student participation numbers had been a concern for some time, Lundblad said.

The college has evaluated its programs in a similar fashion in the past, but a recent enrollment bubble caused by the Great Recession meant an influx of students

"We probably weren't as vigilant as we should have been monitoring our programs," Lundblad said. "And as resources continue to be a concern, we're having to look very carefully now and make sure we're putting the resources in the areas we need to expand and develop."

Colleges are countercyclical, Lundblad said, so when the economy is strong and jobs are available, people tend to forego higher education. But when times are tough, many people return to school for more training to separate themselves from other job candidates in a competitive job field.

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The college saw the most growth in students in ages 25-50, Lundblad said, and those were workers who were laid off, coming back to school and getting retrained.

"We were having increases of 12-15 percent enrollment for a while," Lundblad said.

The college increased staff to meet the greater number of students, but when enrollment slowed, employment levels decreased with them.

"Since 60-some percent of our revenue comes in through tuition and fees, that has an immediate impact," Lundblad said.

Because enrollment and state funding can fluctuate, it's imperative for the college to remain efficient, Lundblad said.

"And I think we are getting there rather quickly with some things," Lundblad said. "Some of those behind-the-scenes things, we really made some major changes."

The college is adding an agronomy program for next fall, Lundblad said. The machine tool technology program might also be expanded to a two-year program, as the industry has said it takes two years to prepare students for industry expectations. There's also plans to add an app program under the computer technology program.

"So we're looking at ways we can expand as well as reallocate resources," Lundblad said.

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Because of these ongoing evaluations, Lundblad said he'd suspect the college would be suspending other programs in the next year or so.

"If a program continues to stay in that red category, that would be a program that maybe we should take those resources and put them someplace else," Lundblad said.

College staff have solicited student input in these evaluations, Lundblad said, but the ultimate decision rests with administrators.

"Students feel very passionately quite often about those kinds of decisions," Lundblad said. "And rightfully so."

Students are involved in the committees and the college's advisory committee features the student presidents from CLC's Brainerd and Staples campuses. But the college needs to do a better job of scheduling meetings at a time when students can attend, Lundblad admitted. They need to be in class, or at a job, or have numerous other commitments to attend to.

"A student is willing or interested, but if it's class or going to sit in a committee meeting, they need to be in class," Lundblad said.

To help remedy that, the college sets aside a couple times each week when there are no classes so a student can attend a committee meeting.

"We're trying to make that work better," Lundblad said.

Initially, teachers were concerned about the program evaluation process, Lundblad said. But as the process has gone on, they've started to understand the process isn't out to get them.

"People are starting to see the value in what we're doing," Lundblad said. "But initially it was like 'Wow, I'm in the red category and I'm going to be out of here.' And that wasn't the intent."

Liberal arts and technical education

CLC's vocational technical education may be more visible because of flashy equipment and grants, Lundblad said, but the split between liberal arts students and technical students is about 50/50. The college is working with businesses and industries to make sure its technical programs meet industry needs, he said, but they're not ignoring liberal arts students.

"We're trying to have a real focus on using technology in the classroom and addressing different learning styles," Lundblad said. "Really trying to mitigate some of the high costs of going to college these days in general."

To help keep costs low, the college looks at finding open source materials for textbooks for courses, Lundblad said. Instead of paying for an expensive textbook, students can use universal, free, open source materials.

"Reviewing, analyzing, make sure the materials are good, and then incorporating them into the classroom," Lundblad said.

It's hard to make sure liberal arts and technical programs are growing at a similar rate, Lundblad admitted, because the budget is always an issue. In some ways, it would be easier to emphasize the liberal arts side because it doesn't require the purchase of expensive technical equipment, he said.

State appropriations to buy new equipment are welcomed, Lundblad said, but often don't cover all the expenses. So to make up the difference, the college seeks support from grants and industries.

Some of the technology can be used for both liberal arts and technical education, Lundblad said. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles purchased through grant dollars can be used for technical education and with some earth science courses.

"There's a little bit of a blending of the career and technical and liberal arts," Lundblad said.

The college is blending the two paths because employers want employees who have technical skills but can still communicate, think critically and have cultural awareness, Lundblad said.

"Community college has a little bit broader aims than just vocational skills for the career and technical people," Lundblad said. "So there's a blending there."

When Lundblad started his career, people were milking cows. Now, in agricultural education, robots are doing the job. Because of big changes like this, CLC's robotics program does have a focus on agriculture. For something like 3-D printing, it has applications in places like graphic design, arts, machine and tool and maybe earth science.

"Who would have thunk even five years ago that was something you could do?" Lundblad said.

Education used to be built like stair steps, Lundblad said, in that as someone advanced to higher education, it was understood it would be cutting-edge. Now, elementary school students are using 3-D printers and drones, so the college has to keep up.

"They're incorporating technology into the classroom faster than we are," Lundblad said. "So we're going to have to catch up."

With advances in technology coming faster and faster, there's a risk in investing in equipment which might become outdated sooner, Lundblad said. But some of the equipment, like robotic welding, will be around for a long time, he said.

"Maybe our piece of equipment isn't going to be the most current at some point in time," Lundblad said.

Presidential transition

In August, Lundblad announced the current academic year would be his 10th and last at the helm of the college. He's worked in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system for 38 years.

The presidential transition causes some concern and uncertainty, Lundblad said. People aren't sure who's going to come in as the new president, so they don't know how to prepare.

"There's going to be a certain level of uncertainty for a couple years, probably," Lundblad said. "Because it will take the new president a year to figure out what's going on and another year to set the direction."

Still, there's positives to having change at the top, Lundblad said, in that it brings a new set of eyes, ideas and experiences to the role.

The search committee will soon start going through the 30-50 applications and decide on 10 candidates to bring to Minnesota in late January for an interview, Lundblad said. The field will then be narrowed to 3-4 finalists who will be brought to CLC for interviews before being interviewed at the MnSCU offices. Then in March, MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone will make his recommendation to the board of trustees.

"Once they start the narrowing process, then it starts going real fast," Lundblad said.

In April through June, Lundblad's responsibilities will shift to helping the new president transition into the position. He'll also focus on squaring away internal processes, so a new president doesn't have to worry about behind-the-scenes issues right away.

"I'm not doing major overhauls, but there's just things that we know that need to be done," Lundblad said.

The college will be in a good place after Lundblad is gone because of the good people in place, he said.

"Sometimes it's just a matter of trying to create a common vision," Lundblad said. "People know what to expect and know what's expected of them."

There's some change going on at CLC, but it's really just business as usual, Lundblad said.

"We have constant concern with the budget and making adjustments," Lundblad said. "There's not a MnSCU institution that's not doing that. We're in a good financial place, but it takes a lot of work to maintain that."

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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