No ‘studies programs’.


An associate’s degree from a small technical college in South Dakota is proving to be more valuable than a degree from some four-year schools.

On campus at Lake Area Technical Institute, students are operating excavators. Others are working on the engine of a 727 airplane. Future nurses are learning how to draw blood from a patient.

And almost all of them will leave school with a job.

Lake Area Tech has one of the highest job placement rates among community colleges across the nation. About 99% of graduates have jobs or are continuing their education within six months of finishing their program.

They’re predominantly employed, President Michael Cartney told CNNMoney.

“We define success as placement. Graduation is a step along the way,” he said.

Lake Area Tech was named the top community college in the country this week by the Aspen Institute. The $600,000 prize for community college excellence is based on factors such as graduation and job placement rates, how much alumni earn in their new jobs, and how many low-income and minority students enroll and succeed.

The hands-on experiences are, in part, what prepares Lake Area Tech students so well for the job market.

“I never felt like I was learning for an exam. I always felt like what I was doing was going to be applicable at some point in my career,” said 2015 graduate Vincent Henningsgaard.

He had a bachelor’s degree in theology before enrolling in Lake Area Tech. But after spending a couple of years at a monastery, he wanted a life change.[…]

That’s one reason Kelsey Stoltenberg enrolled in the nursing program at Lake Area Tech. At an affordable price of less than $12,000 total, the 11-month program wouldn’t require her to spend too much time out of the workforce or away from her family. And she’d walk away with skills needed to land a job.

“I wanted to find something in high demand. And nursing has kind of been in the back of my mind since I graduated,” she said.

Stoltenberg received her bachelor’s degree in exercise science from South Dakota State University in 2008. But she’s been job hopping ever since — from personal trainer, to researcher, to an insurance company’s paramedical examiner — struggling to find a satisfying, steady career near her family.

The economic downturn brought more students to Lake Area Tech, including many who had four-year degrees and still couldn’t find a job, Cartney said.

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