The Next Big Milestone: BSC pursues four-year polytechnic mission

BY LARRY C. SKOGEN, BSC PRESIDENT

When I interviewed to become BSC’s seventh president, one of the first questions asked of me was when BSC would become a four-year institution. My response at that time was, why would we? BSC, I argued, is a great two-year school and should continue to focus on that mission.

In most states, two-year colleges outnumber four-year institutions and serve as gateways for students to begin an affordable education close to home, then transfer on to universities. In North Dakota, we have six four-year institutions and five two-year colleges, giving our citizens greater access to four-year institutions than to two-year institutions. Creating another four-year institution (so there would be seven such campuses) while decreasing access to two-year institutions (leaving only four such campuses) seemed to me to be an insurmountable obstacle.

Early in my tenure as president of BSC, I read a report by students in the 2006 Leadership Bismarck-Mandan program (a professional education program for community members) addressing this same question. The study concluded that the Bismarck-Mandan community overwhelmingly supported BSC’s transition to a four-year institution with one caveat: BSC had to continue with all its two-year technical programs.

One way to do both, without duplicating what is done well at six other existing four-year institutions, was to become a polytechnic four-year institution.

A polytechnic offers bachelor of applied science (BAS) degrees in technical fields – in programs like those already offered by BSC. As a polytechnic, BSC also could provide BAS degrees. If we were to make that transition, however, I knew we’d have to do our homework.

In 2008 I visited the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., and explained to the German Head of the Cultural Department who we were and that we’d like to visit a German polytechnic. In 2012, I brought a team to Fachhochschule Magdeburg-Stendal, an institution offering a variety of BAS degrees in business administration, engineering, industrial design, communications, healthcare, and water management. During that visit we explored academic and cultural exchanges, internship programs, and study abroad opportunities, but what stuck with me was how Magdeburg-Stendal had developed the right atmosphere for the delivery of bachelor degrees in a polytechnic environment.

In the meantime, a former U.S. Air Force base I was stationed at many years ago was given to the city of Gilbert, Arizona. The city of Gilbert offered the location to Arizona State University, which developed ASU Polytechnic there. In 2016 I accompanied a team of BSC administrators and a SBHE member to the campus to learn more. (Side note: That visit was coordinated with ASU’s Chief Financial Officer, a BSC graduate.)

Even as we explored our options, industry demand for four-year technical degrees was building. In 2008 the SBHE approved a BAS in Energy Management at BSC. This program has been wildly successful with as many as 270 students in any given semester, and nearly 500 graduates. BSC then sought and received permission from the SBHE to offer a BAS in Geomatics. Unfortunately, permission was granted at the same time as BSC’s budget was cut 20 percent, and so that program remains unfunded. Next, again at the request of industry, BSC received permission from the SBHE to offer a BAS in Cybersecurity and Information Technology. While we didn’t have the appropriated funds needed to standup this program, industry came through – providing $1.85M. The Higher Learning Commission approved launching that program in fall 2019. Students are already enrolling.

The success of our BAS degrees along with our visits to Magdeburg-Stendal and ASU-Poly reinforced that the best path for BSC to become the four-year institution desired by the Bismarck-Mandan communities was to create a unique niche as a polytechnic. As such, for our bachelor degree offerings, BSC would focus on technical areas and incorporate internships into all the programs.

To my great delight, in September of this year, the SBHE approved this change to our mission. There’s much work now to be done. Dr. Dan Leingang, VP for Academics, will lead a task force to explore all that has to be done to make the transition to a four-year polytechnic, including a possible name change.  

In the final analysis, we are well on our way to achieving the communities’ desire for a four-year state institution. At the same time, BSC has and will remain true to our roots by maintaining all other programming, technical and transfer. Thus, this new recognition and authority to grant four-year degrees is a value added – with nothing subtracted – from our historical mission.

However this transition plays out, BSC will remain focused on providing students with the best launching pad to their full development as individuals and future leaders. In the end, our communities, North Dakota, and most importantly, the students are winners as BSC moves forward with our new mission.

BSC MILESTONES: 1939-2019