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Wanting modern campus centers, Minn. students open their wallets

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Normandale's new student center
Normandale Community College in Bloomington recently opened a new student center on campus. The center is paid for by students, through an increase in student fees.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Meeghan Francisco had some time to kill between classes on a recent day at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, so she headed for her favorite hang out spot on campus: her car. 

Francisco, 25, of Minneapolis, sat alone listening to music in the parking lot and admitted that it's a far-from-ideal spot to spend time. 

"It would be nice to have a place to sit down and actually study or even get to know some other people on campus," she said.

Metropolitan State serves more than 10,000 students. Currently, there is no student center on the campus, but there are plans to build one.

Student leaders plan a $12 million to $15 million student center, complete with study lounges, coffee shops and exercise equipment. They hope to break ground in the spring of 2013, building right over the parking lot.

Other schools in Minnesota have similar plans. Normandale Community College cut the ribbon on its new student center this week and Minneapolis Community and Technical College plans to open one later this year. Other colleges have new centers on the drawing board.

Student centers are not only handy for current students of Minnesota colleges, but an amenity that schools may use to attract future students.

The new centers are something students say they want, but they're also something students are going to pay for. 

At Metropolitan State, construction and operation costs would be paid over the next 20 years by an increase in student fees.

"It's going to have to come out of the students' pocket," said Angi Daus, a student senator at the college. "I think that need has been there for a while and the voices are now really being heard to get that service on our campus somewhere and in some capacity."

Universities in the Minnesota State College and Universities system, like Metropolitan State, have had option to raise student fees for building projects since the 1950s.

Metropolitan State University
Unlike most Minnesota colleges, Metropolitan State University in St. Paul doesn't have a student center on campus. Students are working with the college to build a student center on campus, funded by an increase in student fees.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The MnSCU community colleges were enabled with the option by the legislature in 2008. However, not everyone believes raising fees should be the first option in funding student centers.

The Minnesota State College Student Association has been working with community colleges as they plan new student centers.

Justin Klander, the group's executive director, advocates a more cautious approach when student fees are involved.

"Some of the student fee increases have rivaled that of what tuition increases were in a given year," Klander said. "Before you go ahead on a project you want to make sure it's well received and students are behind it."

Klander's group would prefer that students and college officials request funding from the state in the form of bonding money to build the centers.

College officials say it would be nearly impossible to get bonding money for such projects, especially in competition with classroom space and other higher education infrastructure needs during tough economic times.

They say students want the new centers and are willing to pay for them. Normandale Community College in Bloomington has already tapped that funding source to build its new student center.

The $14.5 million, 55,000 square foot facility, is attached to the campus' main building.

The center offers several upgrades over the small and aging space it replaced, said Director Chris Mikkelsen. 

"We have the little coffee bar here, tea, you can get sushi here, and prepared sandwiches, ice cream and a few other things and it duplicates as a lounge," Mikkelsen said. 

New student centers are popular, largely because student needs have changed.

Collaboration is the name of the academic game these days, and students need bigger spaces to work together on projects.  And they require lots of outlets for their power hungry laptops.  

"We really envision this space becoming the space of choice for students to hang out, meet with their friends, study, get something to eat, shop in the college store, etcetera," said Ed Wines, Normandale Community College's vice president for finance and operation.