In the Finnish language, “sisu” is a concept meaning stoic determination, tenacity of purpose and grit.

Finns generally use the word to describe their national character.

Here in Minnesota, Devinder Malhotra, chancellor of Minnesota State (formerly Minnesota State Colleges and Universities or MnSCU) uses the word to describe a new higher education scholarship initiative throughout the state.

“These scholarships, what they do is they increase your sisu quotient -- that perseverance, that grit, that motivation,” Malhotra said during a Monday, July 8, visit to Central Lakes College in Brainerd.

The purpose of the visit was to explain the Minnesota State system’s workforce development scholarship initiative.

Funded by the state Legislature, this program provides hundreds -- and in the future thousands -- of students pursuing high-demand trades at the 30 Minnesota State colleges with financial assistance through scholarships.

Changing demographics, paired with a workforce shortage, are plaguing the state, Malhotra said. Those factors, along with the knowledge that 75% of emergent jobs statewide will require some sort of post-secondary credentials, create a perfect storm of challenges in Malhotra’s mind.

“And we need to react to it,” he said. “We need to get ahead of it; we need to adapt to it, and that’s really the ultimate purpose of this tour.”

Not only does Malhotra want to raise awareness for Minnesota’s critical workforce shortage, he also wants the public to know what the Legislature and higher education institutions, such as the Minnesota State system, are doing to combat that challenge.

One mechanism is the workforce development scholarship program, which stemmed from the 2017 Minnesota Legislative session, when lawmakers allocated $1 million of state funds to scholarships in the 2018-19 academic year.

Nearly 400 scholarships, each worth $2,500, went to Minnesota State students studying advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care and information technology.

Gov. Tim Walz and the 2019 Legislature approved an expansion to the program, allocating $2 million for scholarships in the 2019-20 school year and $6 million in 2020-21.

With all scholarships valued at $2,500, this means 668 scholarships will be available this coming school year. Each Minnesota State college will be allotted between 25-28 scholarships, with the two CLC campuses set to receive 26.

The $6 million in the 2020-21 school year will fund 2,400 scholarships within the Minnesota State system.

Two more areas of studies were added as well for the next two school years, with students studying early childhood education and transportation also qualifying for the workforce development scholarships, along with the four areas first specified.

This coming school year, the Legislature also expanded the program to Minnesota State universities. Students who have been awarded two years of scholarships at Minnesota State colleges and transfer to a corresponding program at one of the system’s seven universities will be eligible for a third $2,500 scholarship.

“These scholarships really are able to do things,” Malhotra said, noting about 80,000 Minnesota State students are considered low income and come from “economically fragile” backgrounds, where an extra $2,500 could be the deciding factor as to whether they go to college.

With the annual base tuition fee at CLC set at just over $5,500, a workforce development scholarship could cover nearly a full semester of tuition costs.

On top of that, those who receive workforce development scholarships are still eligible for state and federal grants.

“So for certain income levels, it’s possible that with this $2,500, you could go to college with a net tuition cost of zero,” Malhotra said.

Looking to the future

After opening up Monday’s event to questions, the first inquiry Malhotra fielded was what will happen after these next two school years. Will funds be available to continue the workforce development scholarship program, Director of Financial Aid Mike Barnaby asked?

The answer: Most likely.

After the initial $1 million granted for the program’s first year, Malhotra said administrators went back to the Legislature and described the impact the scholarships had on Minnesota State students.

“And that parlayed into $8 million. We will now have almost 2,000 such more stories to tell, maybe even more,” he said. “So I think we’ll have a great story to tell to make sure that we make a case for the continuation of this funding.”

Malhotra said he hopes to create partnerships with area businesses and industries as well to further the fight against the workforce shortage.

During the scholarship program’s pilot year, the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association Education Foundation contributed an additional $30,000 for scholarships for students studying advanced manufacturing at Minnesota State colleges.

“As a result of raising this awareness, I’m hopeful that all others will get excited, too, and will see this as a wake up and therefore will work with us in a partnership so that we can retain these scholarships on an ongoing basis,” Malhotra said.

Scholarship impact

When asked if Minnesota State has a way of tracking the future success of students who received workforce development scholarships, Malhotra said the system is working on a database. Right now, he said initial data indicates almost 90% of students who received one of the scholarships re-enrolled in classes, which means retention rates for scholarship recipients are roughly 20% higher than the general population of students overall.

CLC Vice President Joy Bodin said the school is working to track scholarship data locally as well.

More work to be done

While the workforce development scholarship program is a start, it likely won’t solve Minnesota’s employee shortage issue on its own.

CLC counselor Suzie Karsnia noted Monday the importance of educating high school students and their families of the numerous opportunities in trades fields and at schools like CLC. So many students and parents she speaks with are in the four-year college mindset. And sometimes those who do choose CLC have a habit of saying, “I’m ‘just’ going to CLC,” she said.

Malhotra agreed with Karsnia’s sentiments, concurring with her suggestion that building partnerships with K-12 education programs is imperative to get valuable information out to potential students and future workforce employees.

“You don’t ‘just’ go to CLC,” he said. “You go to CLC so that you can actually be very productive in the workplace and be a force to reckon with in the communities in which you live and become a catalyst for those communities to also thrive.”

Other government funding

Before the economic recession hit around 2008, Malhotra said the state of Minnesota provided about two-thirds of the total revenues for higher education. Student tuition fees covered the remaining third.

About four years ago, those numbers flipped, with student tuition carrying the majority of the burden.

But because Walz and former Gov. Mark Dayton, Malhotra noted, saw the need to prioritize higher education in the past few years, funding is now split about 50/50 between the state and student tuition fees.

“But we still have a ways to go to get back to two-thirds and one-third,” he said.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers increased higher education funding by $150 million in the 2020-21 biennium.

The Minnesota State system received the bulk of that -- $81 million.

While Malhotra said he and administration had asked for a $242 million increase, the fact that more than 50% of the new funds allocated went to Minnesota State is a testament for all those involved, including those working at CLC.

“I think our advocacy, our passion, your work, your efforts in raising the awareness of the importance and the impact of this college within your communities ultimately helped us in getting a hefty chunk of what was allocated for the higher ed,” he said. “But it still falls way short. Again, particularly for our students, affordability is a very, very important consideration.”

That’s why the workforce development scholarship program, Malhotra added, is such an important piece of the overall higher education puzzle.

“I am thrilled about this opportunity because what these scholarships, at its core, do,” he said, “is they enable great institutions like Central Lakes College to open those doors of hope and opportunity a little wider for wider access to more students to come in and get credentials and be ready for those high paying jobs in workforce shortage areas.”

For more information about the workforce development scholarship program, visit http://minnstate.edu/stories/wds/. Interested students can email Shelly Auldrich at shelly.auldrich@MinnState.edu, or CLC students can contact Joy Bodin at 218-855-8058 or joy.bodin@clcmn.edu.