Hundreds of college-bound students across Minnesota now have the opportunity to be awarded workforce development scholarships worth $2,500 or more that will help them launch a career in a high-demand occupation in Minnesota.

Minnesota State system Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said enhancing access and promoting student success are among the system’s top priorities. This scholarship program falls in line with those priorities.

“As I have traveled around the state, a theme that I consistently hear from employers is that Minnesota is facing a critical shortage of workers with the skills needed for high-demand occupations,” said Malhotra, who has been traveling the state to raise awareness about the scholarships.

In the 2018-19 academic year, nearly 400 Workforce Development Scholarships of $2,500 were awarded to students entering Minnesota State colleges as part of a pilot program funded by a $1 million appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature during the 2017 session.

The scholarships were made available to new students entering associate degree, diploma or certificate programs in high-demand sectors of Minnesota’s economy at any of the 30 Minnesota State community and technical colleges. The qualifying programs included advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care and information technology.

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Malhotra said data indicate that retention rates are growing because of the scholarships. The retention rate for students who received the scholarship was around 90%, according to Malhotra, which is about 20% higher than the general student population.

“We need to support student success and enhance access (to college),” Malhotra said, noting the Minnesota State schools already are a major player in helping to address workforce shortages in the state.

During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers expanded the pilot program by making $2 million available for the 2020 fiscal year. In 2021 there will be $6 million available for the program. With the additional funding, the number of available scholarships will increase to an estimated 668 in 2020.

The legislation also expanded the program to include early childhood education and transportation.

Malhotra was on the East Grand Forks campus of Northland Community and Technical College this week to discuss the scholarships.

Lars Dyrud, executive director of Northland’s Foundation, said there is a shortage of workers in various areas in the state. He hopes this program will help with that shortage.

“It’s a great recruiting tool to attract students here,” Dyrud said, noting that $2,500 makes a huge difference to students because NCTC’s tuition is already lower than many colleges in the area.

However, students are already handling issues even with the lower tuition. They may work full-time; some may be deciding if college is even the path they want to take, Dyrud said. These scholarships can help alleviate some of those stresses.

“These scholarships when they’re in school, or right when they’re starting school, are just a huge help to them at a time in their greatest need,” he said.

Adding to the initial funding from the Legislature, colleges are leveraging private contributions from business, industry and other partners to increase the value of the scholarships. Dyrud said no area business are currently part of the program, but he has had some inquiries about it.