All of these practices at Saint Paul have a purpose: to turn out students who can think critically in the best tradition of the liberal arts. Compared to other community colleges, the instructors at Saint Paul spend more time teaching students to evaluate and synthesize information, make judgments about it, and apply concepts to perform new skills. This is as true in vocational classes as it is in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. After all, in a fast-changing economy, the specific skills you learn in college might be obsolete in five or ten years. Students who are adept at learning and adapting won’t need retraining down
That’s why Strand, the carpentry instructor, spends a lot of time showing his students photographs of commercial architecture in places like sandy Dubai—which arguably has nothing to do with the kind of work they’ll do in snowy St. Paul, Minnesota. This is important, he says, because the construction trade changes so quickly—students need to be able to spot trends and possibilities in order to be leaders in their field. “I’ve just got to open up their minds and show them, wow, what’s going on,” he says. “Expand their horizons and open up their minds to think about the future.”
In this way, Saint Paul hasn’t just brought the hands-on ethos and intense student-faculty interaction of the trades to the liberal arts. It’s brought the critical thinking and wide perspective of the liberal arts to the trades.
For most community colleges, guiding students all the way to a degree is a major problem—less than a quarter of full-time students graduate in three years. Saint Paul’s graduation rate of 41 percent is well above the national average. This is another reason Saint Paul sits atop Washington Monthly’s rankings, which give 15 percent weight to graduation rates. The college’s “Power of You” program offers free tuition to graduates of St. Paul’s public schools. (The program was initially funded by foundations and corporate donors, and now the school has picked up the tab with hopes that the state eventually will.) Students in the program have access to counselors called “retention specialists,” whose job is to help them if they run into academic trouble. Through Saint Paul’s “early alert” system, teachers can send the retention specialists an online alert when they notice a student struggling. Retention specialists then get in touch with the student and try to sort it out. The program received an award from the state and is being copied at other schools in Minnesota.
“Our population is extremely diverse, a high proportion of immigration students—disadvantaged, underrepresented, urban, and gritty,” says Thomas Matos, director of student services. “There are expectations that the assumptions have to be lower. What Saint Paul College has done is said, ‘You know what, our expectations have to be high. You have to work for the grades you get in the classroom.’ And then we work to give them the services that support them.”
Saint Paul isn’t wealthy—per-student spending is below average compared to the hundreds of colleges in the CCSSE survey. Its students face the same challenges that community colleges contend with nationwide. The lesson it teaches—not just to its students, but to everyone—is that excellence isn’t limited to the relative handful of colleges that can afford to pick their students. When it comes to teaching, any college can be great.
That’s good news for students like Corey Sass. A high school football standout, Sass was recruited to play running back at the University of Minnesota’s Crookston campus. Academics weren’t exactly high on his mind, and at first, that didn’t seem to be a problem. His coaches picked his classes around his workout schedule, and they didn’t really talk much about academics. The message was clear: school didn’t really matter as long as he played well.
So when Sass failed out and lost his scholarship, he felt betrayed by his coaches. “I guess I felt like maybe they should have done a little more to make sure I was getting my classes done.”
Sass worked for a number of years in construction before he was ready to continue his education. At Saint Paul College, he has thrived. His first classes, in art history and speech, helped him discover a new dimension of his own interests and capabilities. “I did well, and that gave me confidence,” he says.
Now, Sass has completed the one-year diploma in carpentry—and along the way he’s discovered he loves learning. One day he hopes to run his own construction company. He knows he won’t be able to swing a hammer forever, so he plans to continue on with his bachelor’s degree—or maybe more.
“I love going to school,” he says. “I joke around with my friends that I want to be a carpenter with a PhD.”
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