Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read June 2021 — President of St. Cloud State University Robbyn Wacker talks to Invest: about the university’s place in the world of higher education and how it is seeking to overcome the odds of what is a precarious time for regional comprehensive universities such St. Cloud. She is looking to incubate, work with local businesses and refine an individualized approach to education.
Where does St. Cloud fit into the higher education spectrum?
That’s an interesting question because the answer is, we’re shifting where we fit into the higher education spectrum as we speak and reimagining St. Cloud State University for the future. Traditionally, we are referred to as a regional comprehensive university, which is a type of institution that offers broad, general degrees and programs to students mostly from the local region. Elsewhere on the higher education spectrum are the large public research universities, the community colleges and private colleges. What is currently happening in the higher education sector is that the regional comprehensives are really getting squeezed from all sides. The community colleges in many states across the country have been given permission to offer low-cost four-year degrees. If there is a low-price competitor, then why not choose a four-year degree from a community college? Next you have the research universities with the brand-name recognition and significant resources to recruit students and are taking a greater share of the student market. Then you have the private colleges with a smaller student body, a great alumni network and an excellent reputation. As regional comprehensives we often talk about ourselves as what we’re not — we’re not a community college, or a private school or a research university — and now we’re losing market share because we haven’t done enough to highlight what we are and our unique benefits for students. While regional comprehensives are experiencing this squeeze across the country, at St. Cloud State, we understand that we’re really at the crossroads of our future. These forces are very real, and we have to make the right steps moving forward – and they have to be bold steps, not tinkering around the edges to make minor changes.
So, 18 months ago, we launched the antidote to that: creating a new type of university. We call this initiative It’s Time, as in, “It’s time to be bold, take control of our future, and reimagine what St. Cloud State can be.” It’s taking what’s best about the traditional regional comprehensives, which is access, and combining it with the best elements of other types of higher education institutions. We’re building our niche on our academic strengths in four focus areas – holistic health and wellness, applied science and engineering, education and leadership. We’re individualizing student support and how we work with students. We’re focused on our faculty and leveraging their work as teacher-scholars — teachers in the classroom but scholars in their field. It truly is a new blueprint, and it’s gaining great momentum and interest.
How does St. Cloud contribute to central Minnesota’s economy?
St. Cloud State University generates $686.5M in economic impact per year, with roughly $38M in state and local revenues and even more in community contributions. We truly recognize the impact our institution can have on the economy in the region and beyond. In terms of our place locally, St. Cloud is starting to evolve as an incubator, a hub for innovation. The Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation has invested in economic development, innovation and incubation of small businesses in the region. We are very much connected to that work. We want to serve both the local community, as we always have, and extend our reach beyond central Minnesota. We’re thinking about specific public-private partnerships in science, health, education and leadership, not only in central Minnesota but in the Twin Cities as well. The engagement begins by asking: what kind of educational products can we provide industry? We are aligning our degrees so that there is a better fit with what the business community needs. It may be a “just in time” educational product that they need – such as a professional certificate for their workforce — that we can quickly and expertly develop. It’s also about our research, and how our faculty and students engaged in research that has immediate applications. As an example of that, our students and faculty worked with a company called GeoComm to develop and bring to market GPS technology to assist first responders. It demonstrates our goal to be an educational partner as well as a research partner.
What has been your most significant innovation over the past year?
First, I would underscore It’s Time. This is not just another strategic plan. It’s not a tweak. We’re recreating and redefining what it means to be a regional university. That’s a significant decision. Another significant innovation, which was really accelerated by the pandemic, is that as a university we’re headed toward an individualized approach with regard to how we serve students. I know that every university’s website says they are “student-centered”. We want to go beyond that. What we really want is a paradigm shift where the university’s entire approach is based on a student-by-student basis. For example, we have a student who dropped out of high school and ended up getting a GED, and has been working for a while and decides, OK, I’m going to go try going to college. When you talk about an individualized approach to student success, imagine the kind of conversation that might occur with him or her compared to a student that graduated in the top of their class and has a parent who is an educator. We have redesigned our approach to student success by implementing Student Success Coaches who will provide consistent, and personalized support for every student. Other sectors such as health care, have adopted an individualized approach to improve client outcomes, so why not take an individualized approach with students too? In closing we are proactively and boldly shaping our university’s future to better serve our students and all our stakeholders.
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