WILLMAR – Ridgewater College will be able to offer more than two dozen $2,500 scholarships in the coming year for students studying in high-demand fields.

Students who meet requirements could receive the scholarships for a second year while studying agriculture, information technology, manufacturing, health care, early childhood and transportation.

Workforce Development Scholarships are part of a $2 million appropriation from state government to the Minnesota State system of public colleges and universities. Next year the statewide total will jump to $6 million.

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra was at Ridgewater’s Willmar campus Wednesday to raise awareness of the program. The college also has a campus in Hutchinson.

Students have until July 30 to apply for the scholarships, said Ridgewater President Craig Johnson. To apply, students should go to www.ridgewater.edu/scholarships to fill out an application form. To streamline the process, the college foundation uses the same application for all scholarships, he said. Students planning to study in high-need fields will be considered for the scholarships.

The program is a continuation of a pilot project that brought eight scholarships to Ridgewater.

Jodi Phillipp of Eden Valley received the scholarship to study agriculture. She said she started her agribusiness program when she was a senior in high school through the Post-Secondary Options Program. Her plan was to reduce college debt that way.

Receiving the scholarship after high school “allowed me to take more classes and walk away with less debt,” she told the college and community officials who were meeting with Malhotra.

She has graduated with an associate degree in agribusiness, and is planning to use the second year of her scholarship to complete an associate degree in farm operations and certificate in precision farming.

“I’m really thankful for this scholarship,” she said. “It helped me a lot, and it has pushed me really far.”

Malhotra said the program will provide 668 scholarships systemwide in the coming year and 2,400 the year after that. Students who go on to study at a Minnesota State university could be awarded another $2,500 in their third year.

In the 2020-21 school year, 80 to 100 more students could receive scholarships.

About three-quarters of jobs in the high-demand fields require some post-secondary study, Malhotra said, and the new program could open the door to students who never thought college was a possibility for them.

The program will not be the ultimate solution to labor shortages and inequality, Malhotra said, but it could spur business, industry, civic leadership and philanthropic communities to become involved in the effort.

Of Minnesota State’s 400,000 students, 80,000 come from low-income families, 65,000 are from communities of color or native communities, and 10,000 are veterans, he said.

In the pilot project, early information indicates a student retention rate of nearly 90 percent was achieved, about 25 percent higher than the general student population, Malhotra said.

Malhotra urged the college and its communities to work together to provide additional resources for students, whether through additional scholarships or through on-the-job training opportunities.

State Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said, “I know in our community, a couple folks are now wondering if we can try to match what (the college) is doing, so if Ridgewater is doing 80 to 100, no one is saying our community can’t reach out and try to match that.”

Baker said he would like to see community efforts in Willmar and Hutchinson that could keep the programs going, even if state funding runs out. He also urged faculty members to do even more to reach out to businesses to find ways to cooperate.

Johnson said businesses that want their workers to finish their degrees have been willing to have them work part-time until they graduate.