By MARY LYNN SMITH, Star Tribune
Last update: December 10, 2008 - 10:46 PM
Laid off from your job? The good news is that you can go back to school -- for free.
With hard times pushing more people into the unemployment line, Normandale Community College in Bloomington , the largest community college in the state, is dropping tuition for students eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. And at Anoka-Ramsey Community College , which has campuses in Cambridge and Coon Rapids , tuition for students on unemployment is cut in half for all classes.
At Normandale, free classes during the spring semester that begins Jan. 12 are limited to those with empty seats and doesn't include online courses.
"It struck me that essentially we're putting a teacher in front of that classroom, we're paying for the lights and electricity anyways," Normandale President Joe Opatz said. "Why not extend this opportunity to people who may see the need to retool themselves with new skills, some educational opportunities to advance their résumé and help them deal with a very difficult situation."
Opatz said the college already has identified 40 to 50 such classes, including courses in engineering, business, accounting, science, English and math. He expects a minimum of 100 to 200 seats will be available this spring. The college expects to have an early list of free classes next week, Opatz said.
The savings for a qualified student could amount to at least $450 for a typical class. Tuition is about $150 for each credit and most classes are three to four credits, Opatz explained.
For the school of 14,000 students, the cost is minimum because a broad range of classes never fill to capacity. "A class of 30 is more than enough to decide to go ahead and offer it," Opatz said. "But it may have 45 seats so there's an extra 15 seats."
At Anoka , President Pat Johns said 4,000 people applied for unemployment benefits in Anoka County last month, indicating many people are looking for new career and job options.
He said the college decided to reduce tuition 50 percent in order to avoid duplicating other programs and so that students would have a personal stake in their education: "Some skin in the game'' as he put it.
Other administrators in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which includes 25 community and technology colleges and seven state universities, are talking about reducing tuition for the unemployed during these extraordinary tough economic times, said Melinda Voss, MnSCU's public relations director.
"Typically, during a recession our numbers go up," Voss said. Last year, enrollment was up 4.5 percent and this fall, enrollment increased 3 percent over fall 2007, she said.
More high school students realize they need a post-secondary education to cut it in the job market, Voss said. More adults are returning to school because they've been laid off or because they need re-training to switch careers. And then there are college graduates who leave with a degree in biology or anthropology and return for more specific career training, she said.
"A couple years ago," Voss said, "we had some philosophy and anthropology majors enroll at a tech school for training in heating and air conditioning."
Opatz said it's possible that Normandale will extend the free classes into next year. "This is an experiment,'' he said. "We need to be creative and innovative in helping the state through this difficulty. ... We should be part of the solution."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788
To find out more about free classes at Normandale Community College , call 952-487-8201 or go to www.normandale.edu. For information about reduced tuition at Anoka-Ramsey Community College , call 763-433-1100 or go to www.anokaramsey.edu.