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Mitchell Tech pulls in national recognition

Mitchell Technical Institute has been nationally recognized by the Aspen Institute as a top-10 technical and community college in the United States. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mitchell Technical Institute has broken through to some national recognition.

The Aspen Institute, which biennially recognizes the top community and technical colleges in the country, has named Mitchell Tech to its list of the top 10 colleges for 2019. The original pool included nearly 1,000 public community colleges nationwide, and MTI is being honored in the top 10 for the first time in school history. Now, the honor puts MTI in the running for a $1 million prize to be awarded in April 2019.

Administrators at MTI point to the school's recent efforts to build its Center for Student Success team as being a primary reason for the national recognition in this version of the Aspen award.

"MTI making the Aspen Top 10 is due to the extraordinary efforts of our Center for Student Success team, our faculty and everyone at MTI who works to make sure our students have the best possible outcome: a great education, completion of their program and a job after graduation," said MTI President Mark Wilson in a statement. "This is a great honor, not just for MTI, but for our state, our industry partners and the Mitchell community."

The Aspen Prize recognizes schools for student access and success, and evaluates schools in four areas: student learning, certificate and degree completion at the community college and after transferring to a four-year institution, employment and earnings rates after graduation and access for minority and low-income students.

MTI Associate to the President Julie Brookbank said the concentrated effort on retention and aiding student success outside of the classroom were focuses in the last few years, and that likely made a difference with the Aspen decision-makers.

For example, MTI has a 73 percent three-year graduation/transfer rate, which is among the best in the country. The national average is 40 percent. Mitchell Tech also has placed 99 percent of its students within six months of graduating over the past four years.

"It's good for national recognition and it's good recognition for a lot of hard work from our staff and students, as well," said Brookbank, noting Watertown's Lake Area Technical Institute won the Aspen honor in 2017.

"We're in good company," she added.

Starting in 2015, MTI organized a dean for student success and restructured its organizational operations to allow for student success coaches that would supervise programs. If a student falls behind or is struggling with classes, faculty can reach out to the coach, who will work with the students.

"Students that come here tend to finish but we just thought there were some things we could do better," Brookbank said. "The first part was establishing the center and centralizing all of those services. ... To those students that come here, we take our obligation to them seriously."

Another element included a mission with MTI's accrediting body — the Higher Learning Commission — in looking at what MTI is doing to get a student to graduate. MTI already has an 80 percent retention rate, well above the national average.

"Mitchell Tech is impressive in its approach to preparing students for the workforce after college," said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, based in Washington D.C. "Faculty and staff work with students before they arrive on campus to help align their program choices with available jobs. Understanding the nuanced labor market needs of today, Mitchell Tech is also working toward requiring a final semester 'career readiness course to ensure students are prepared to find a job and succeed in a challenging job market."

MTI's application process began after being notified they were a top-150 honoree in the fall, using most of October to fill out the application. That included data on retention, federal aid and accessibility to a diverse student body. School staffers had a phone interview with an award panel in January, and in September, MTI will host Aspen officials for a two-day visit to collect additional data and to meet with students, faculty and administrators.

The hard work will only continue, Brookbank said, to see how high MTI can go.

"Academically and from a higher education standpoint, this is probably the best group of community colleges in the country," Brookbank said.

Mitchell Tech was the only school in the Midwest to be recognized. The other nine finalists for the award include: Palo Alto College, San Antonio, Texas; Broward College, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; CUNY Kingsborough Community College, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Indian River State College, Fort Pierce, Fla.; Miami Dade College, Miami, Fla.; Odessa College, Odessa, Texas; Pasadena City College, Pasadena, Calif.; Pierce College at Fort Steilacoom, Lakewood, Wash.; San Jacinto College, Pasadena, Texas.