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News Release: MN North College receives $3 million Blandin Foundation grant to build the region’s workforce skills, resources and capacity



AspireNORTH takes aim at the region’s labor challenges with student-centered programs, a holistic approach and improved access for underserved students and workers

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. (Feb. 7, 2023) –  Minnesota North College (Minnesota North) has launched a new initiative to transform the ways it teaches, trains and supports students to better serve their needs and provide greater access for Minnesotans on the economy’s sidelines.

Blandin Foundation awarded a $3 million, three-year grant to support AspireNORTH, Minnesota North’s ambitious plan to build rural capacity in Northeast Minnesota through regional impact and coordination. Key to AspireNORTH is its holistic approach to get students and workers alike the training they need to fill the region’s jobs.

A bold approach

“We’ve taken a bold step with this grant, enabling the leadership of Minnesota North to think big and truly redesign how their system serves this region of the state,’’ said Tuleah Palmer, Blandin Foundation President and CEO. ‘’Right now, our approaches leave behind more workers than we help. AspireNORTH will shift the approach from focusing on how the individual is performing within the system to focusing on how the system is performing for the individual.  That requires a whole new framework of regional coordination and leadership to build prosperity for our marginalized workers and keep our wealth of knowledge and money close to home.”

AspireNORTH builds on the momentum created by the merger of the six participating campuses into a single higher-education institution, which was completed last May. This shift, and a nearly 25 percent decline in enrollment at the campuses since 2016, sparked conversations across the system about how the school is providing educational opportunities.

“Blandin’s investment in Minnesota North College’s AspireNORTH project will significantly strengthen our ability to attract and robustly support traditionally underrepresented students in our region by meeting them where they are at as they balance their learning, work, and other responsibilities,” said Dr. Michael Raich, President of Minnesota North College. “In turn, our local business and industries will ultimately benefit from a larger and more diverse group of skilled graduates.”

“The demographics are telling us that we have to be doing something different to see different results,” said Dr. Jessalyn Sabin, academic dean of career and tech education and director of operations at MN North’s Mesabi Range-Eveleth campus.

One example is delivery of educational opportunities. Staff envision mobile training units to literally meet people where they are.

“Much of our career training can happen wherever the work site is,” said Dr. Trent Janezich, executive director of advancement and customized training solutions at MN North College. “We can offer courses like commercial truck driving in communities an hour or more from our campuses.”

Key points

  • Underinvestment in rural workforce systems has contributed to a crisis for rural businesses and workers. Northeast Minnesota currently faces record-high job vacancies. Poverty is higher and median household income is lower.  

  • Colleges are critical access points for rural Minnesotans but the current operational model is not adequately serving the needs of students, small communities or employers. AspireNORTH is a multi-year, regional initiative to build the capacity of all six campuses of Minnesota North College to better meet the unique needs of students in NE MN.  

  • This bold initiative is designed to transform northeastern Minnesota through regional collaboration, improving outcomes for students with mentorship, wrap-around services, academic support and employer connections – from point of contact to employment and beyond. A priority is attracting traditionally underrepresented populations of students and workers.   

  • AspireNORTH exemplifies Blandin Foundation’s new strategic commitment to community wealth-building through regional impact, human-centered approaches and accountability-driven programming that changes systems. 

  • It will be modeled on the success of Minnesota North’s innovative EMPOWER program which resulted in more than 50 percent of participants securing job offers before graduation. 

Whole-life supports

Building out a full suite of student supports – from child care options, to mental health, financial aid and deeper connections with the region’s Tribal communities – will take longer but are a top priority, based on experience with the EMPOWER program.

“Our key insight from EMPOWER is the power of an educational guide,’’ said Sabin. ‘’Unless you have someone alongside you to navigate processes in higher education, it’s hard to be successful.”

In the first year, AspireNORTH plans to add an American Indian Education coordinator, a career navigation coordinator and bolster mental health supports. Trauma-informed training for current staff to recognize signs of life challenges like homelessness, mental health emergencies and substance use, cultural competency and adult learning theory will connect students with resources that help them reach their career goals.

The Need

Underinvestment in rural workforce systems has contributed to a crisis for rural businesses and workers.  Significant transitions in Northeastern Minnesota including large numbers of retirements, mining and forest industries ramping up green operations, and growing income gaps for women, workers of color and those with disabilities all add up to historic demand for workers in a region with:

  • About 2 jobs open for every available worker
  • A 57 percent labor participation rate, 12 percent lower than the state overall
  • A 4.3 percent, all-time low unemployment rate
  • A poverty rate of 11.2 percent, almost 2 points higher than the statewide rate
  • A median annual household income $14,000 lower than Minnesota a whole, at $59,000
  • Statistics that are even worse for Native Minnesotans
  • Too few leaders in nonprofits and local governments

For Janezich and Sabin, these numbers add up to opportunity.

“We want to encourage people to participate in learning at some level, whether that’s a short-term course for certification or completing a two-year degree,” Janezich said. “This grant allows us to welcome people who haven’t participated before.”

Building community wealth

The impacts of structuring learning to fit every stage of life go far beyond dollars and cents to a sense of opportunity that lies at the heart of the northern Minnesota ethos.

“There’s definitely an intangible economic impact,” said Sabin. “The opportunity for workers to train in something new, to change and adapt their knowledge and skills, builds hope and vitality in a community – and this can happen at any stage of your career.”

It’s in this holistic view of education, community and the systems that serve both, that Blandin Foundation sees power and promise.

“Wealth-building includes building the capacity of key anchor institutions capable of transforming systems that perpetuate education and economic inequities based on race, place and class,” said Sonja Merrild, director of rural grantmaking at Blandin Foundation. “AspireNORTH is a strong, collective impact approach and demonstrates the kind of regional, coordinated strategies we are emphasizing with grantees in our funding.’’


Minnesota North College Contact
Dr. Trent Janezich, Executive Director of Advancement & Customized Training Solutions at Minnesota North College




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