Aspen Prize

Aspen Prize Nominee: Alexandria Technical and Community College

By Sarah Asp Olson

Strong business partnerships, a top-notch reputation and industry-specific training programs put this Minnesota college’s graduates in high demand.

The Aspen Institute recently announced 150 community colleges eligible for the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The prize recognizes community colleges that have achieved strong student outcomes in four primary areas: certificate and degree completion; student learning; employment and earnings; and success for minority and low-income students. While each eligible institution has proved its all-around excellence, the following series looks at member colleges with outstanding performance in one of the above areas. Here is the second installment, which focuses on employment and earnings.

Alexandria Technical and Community College (ATCC), in Alexandria, Minnesota, has the highest graduation rate of all two-year schools in the state. Equally impressive, the school boasts a 96 percent job-placement rate across its core industries, including mechatronics, manufacturing and health care. A number of programs had a 100 percent placement rate every year from 2010 to 2014.

“Our graduates out of a number of programs have multiple job offerings five to six months before they graduate,” says ATCC President Laura Urban. “Employers just keep knocking on our door saying, ‘more, give me more.’”

Who is hiring ATCC graduates?

Law enforcement: Local police, state patrol and county sheriffs’ departments; border patrol; and other federal agencies look for ATCC graduates.

Manufacturing: In the Alexandria area, there are five companies that manufacture high-end packaging equipment. They seek machine-tool grads, welders and automation specialists, as well as accountants, human resources professionals and administrative staff.

Health care: Local hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities are prevalent in the Alexandria region (a retirement community), and the need for long-term care and care for the aging continues to accelerate. That is also a potential market for health and fitness students, because the aging population wants to stay active a lot longer.

Advertisers and marketers: ATCC’s outstanding Communication Art and Design program, from which students win multiple state and national awards, is a talent pool for agencies across the state.

How does ATCC foster successful continuing relationships with business partners, such as 3M, Polaris, Arctic Cat and others?

One of the keys, particularly at a technical college, is staying up to date on the latest equipment, processes and procedures.

Gregg Raisanen, senior academic dean of academic affairs and students, highlights the Leveraged Equipment Fund, in which the college receives allocated dollars from the state, with the requirement of an industry match. “If we need a $100,000 piece of equipment, the state will provide $50,000, and the industry has to come up with the other $50,000,” Raisanen explains. “Having that strong connection with industry has helped our programs obtain equipment in order to stay current.”

ATCC faculty members also contribute to successful partnerships across a variety of industries.

“Our faculty do a tremendous job staying in touch with their industry partners,” Urban says. “They’re out making sure we have the latest in equipment and processes and procedures, which drive the curriculum.”

This give-and-take among industry and the institution ensures a mutually beneficial relationship.

Why are ATCC grads in such high demand?

Raisanen attributes the demand to industry growth, the college’s reputation and the number of retiring baby boomers who need to be replaced.

ATCC also ensures its graduates are ready to hit the ground running after graduation by aligning their programs with external assessments designed to prepare students to take licensure exams. And in certain programs, such as welding, students graduate already having earned anywhere from two to six certifications, “so when an employer hires them, they’re already certified to go to work,” Raisanen says.

Sarah Asp Olson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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