Hector Caballero Jr., husband and father of two, spent a decade working at Walgreens before he was finally ready for college. In 2007, he enrolled at a local four-year university near his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, to study business. But things didn’t go so well. The classes were too easy. The teachers didn’t seem that knowledgeable. Hector became frustrated and began asking around for help. A cousin recommended another local school.

This college was different. Hector’s business classes were supplemented with challenging courses in writing, science, and speech. His composition instructors taught him to use multiple sources and how to evaluate their credibility. Hector had never done that before. “I was naive,” he says.

Hector even started changing the way he consumed the news, applying a newfound level of critical thinking to the broadcasts of Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and sparring viewpoints on the Internet. “I started comparing how things are presented,” he says.

Inculcating such habits of skeptical citizenship is a classic mission of the liberal arts. But it’s not the kind of thing most people expect from a little-known two-year trade school like Saint Paul College, where Hector is a student. Saint Paul—which puts to shame the idea that trade schools are for people who are good with their hands, not their heads—beat out hundreds of other schools nationwide to top this year’s Washington Monthly list of America’s best community colleges. The educators there know that whether you’re an auto mechanic or a sociologist, you need to learn how to think and how to learn, because most of your future jobs probably haven’t been invented yet. Saint Paul also shows that technical education has a lot to teach the liberal arts. The collaborative, interactive teaching methods that the best technical schools employ every day turn out to be, in many cases, just what the liberal arts have been missing.

Saint Paul College was founded one hundred years ago by the Saint Paul Builders Exchange as a vocational high school. Builders sat on the school’s board and made sure the curriculum matched the school’s early motto: “It always pays to learn a trade.”

In 1990, Donovan Schwichtenberg became president of Saint Paul Technical and Vocational Institute. He was hired to set the school’s finances straight, and there was fear that he might clean house and replace veteran staffers with his own people. But Schwichtenberg had always found that kind of leadership arrogant. An earnest and affable career educator, he’s active in his local Rotary Club and keeps bees at a family farm. “I believe you come into a situation and you value what is there and you look for the good things and you build on that,” he says.

Schwichtenberg built on the school’s strengths, expanding the facilities and the curriculum. He created a new facility on campus to help veterans attending college and received an award from the Defense Department for supporting employees who participate in the National Guard and Army Reserve.

Then, about five years after settling into the presidency, Schwichtenberg stumbled across a statistic that set his brain on overdrive. “There were 20,000 households in the St. Paul area that did not have access to an automobile,” he recalls. “And there’s no other public two-year college in St. Paul.” Schwichtenberg realized that it would be nearly impossible for these households to get to an affordable liberal arts school—especially in Minnesota’s snow and ice.

So Schwichtenberg decided to add a liberal arts track. It wasn’t easy—the old guard pushed back. They were afraid that if the curriculum expanded, the trades would lose their clout. But Schwichtenberg persevered. In 2002, the college formally changed its name to “Saint Paul College—A Community & Technical College.” The last part was added to underscore the ongoing importance of the trades. Today, Saint Paul offers sixty-one occupational degree programs, an associate of arts degree in liberal arts, and several two-year programs designed to lead directly into the state’s four-year universities.

When Schwichtenberg set to hiring professors for the new liberal arts programs, he found that the old and the new were far more compatible than anyone at the school could have predicted. In fact, Saint Paul’s culture of teaching the trades matched everything researchers were saying about how liberal arts students learn best.

For centuries, vocational educations have relied very successfully on the apprenticeship model: the disciple practices the conventions of the trade under the guidance of the master. Learning is hands-on, with intense interaction between student and teacher. Technical schools, too, have generally hewed to this model.

On the other hand, four-year colleges like the one Hector first attended have traditionally used a very different model of education: the lecture, which is inexpensive and, at its best, stimulating. But lecture halls can also easily become dull places where learning goes to die.

In the 1980s and ’90s, educational research started to take notice of what the trade schools were already doing so effectively. People learn more when teaching is “active and collaborative,” research found, when students engage with the material, work with one another, and strive to solve problems rather than absorb information passively through a lecture. The more direct interaction with faculty and practical application of classroom concepts, the better.

That’s why the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), a nonprofit organization based at the University of Texas, surveys hundreds of community colleges every year to see how well they encourage things like group projects, class presentations, and interaction with faculty in and out of the classroom. It’s also why CCSSE results make up the bulk of Washington Monthly’s community college rankings.

For trade school educators, the revelation was nothing new. “The technical college faculty were saying, ‘What’s the big deal? We’ve been doing that for centuries,’ ” recalls Leslie Mercer, associate vice chancellor for research, planning, and effectiveness in Minnesota’s public higher education system. A trade school by tradition and a liberal arts college by choice, Saint Paul has demonstrated an uncanny flair for putting these state-of-the-art pedagogical ideas into practice.

The ethos starts with the way students and faculty interact. About two-thirds of Saint Paul students are either first-generation college-goers, of color, from low-income families, or some combination of the three. Many are immigrants, reflecting the area’s high concentration of Somalis and Hmong. Students like that tend to drown in impersonal lectures. So Saint Paul classes are small, averaging nineteen students. Teachers roam the rooms, providing guidance as students work on individual assignments and group projects. “You have to be approachable,” says Penny Starkey, a chemistry instructor, “willing to work closely with students.”

Rather than holding limited office hours and then retreating to their homes, teachers are regularly on campus with their office doors wide open. It’s not uncommon for instructors to give out their cell phone numbers and take calls and answer e-mails on weekends. Dan Paulnock, a popular speech teacher who has won several teaching awards, gives students a personal guarantee. “I tell my students that they have a lifetime warranty on my teaching,” he says. “I give them my cell phone number on my syllabus. And they can call that cell phone number at any time, as long as it’s not eleven at night or seven in the morning. I get calls constantly.”

Of course, all colleges have some inspiring teachers. What the CCSSE data show is how widespread effective teaching practices have become at Saint Paul College compared to the norm. For example, nearly all of the students surveyed at Saint Paul said they had discussed ideas or readings from class with their instructors outside of class time. At most two-year schools, close to half of the students never do this.

The interaction between faculty and students isn’t limited to academic pursuits—the college also encourages extracurricular activities and service projects that help students feel like they are part of a real community, not just a commuter school. Timothy Strand, a veteran carpenter, spends a huge amount of time with his students. “Especially in the trades, we’re with them from seven or eight in the morning till two in the afternoon,” Strand says. “We’re their mentor, their counselor—we help them solve problems.” That role extends out into the neighborhood as well: every year, Strand and his students remodel homes for a nonprofit that serves severely disabled people. “The halls have to be widened, the doors have to be widened, we put in special bathtubs,” Strand says. “We do one to five houses a year for them—whatever they need.”

Again, this kind of experience is the norm. Ninety-three percent of Saint Paul students work with their instructors on activities other than coursework. Nationwide, about 70 percent of students at two-year schools say that they never do this. Ninety-eight percent of Saint Paul students say they’ve taught or tutored other students. Less than one-third of students nationwide have had the same experience.

Among the more than 650 community colleges nationwide surveyed by CCSSE, Saint Paul scored highest on “Active and Collaborative Learning.” In the trade classes at Saint Paul, welders join pieces of metal and culinary arts students prepare meals. In science courses, students build models of the endocrine system and chart the readings of an EKG. Hands-on projects are such a part of school culture that every year the school holds an arts and sciences fair. Ninety-eight percent of students say they’ve worked together on projects outside of class. Nationally, only about 60 percent of students at two-year schools say this. Saint Paul students have a distinct edge in this equation: the modern workplace is rarely solitary, and employers value people who know how to work in teams.

No rules at Saint Paul dictate how many projects teachers must assign, or how they must run their classrooms. But the college does have a strong set of expectations and policies that reinforce this kind of teaching. The administration gives awards to teachers who come up with innovative new classroom methods, and the teachers control a staff development fund to pay for ongoing education. An internal Center for Teaching and Learning helps instructors improve their skills. And the school has veteran teachers mentor new ones, so they can pass on the shared educational values of the school.

All of these practices at Saint Paul have a purpose: to turn out students who can think critically in the best tradition of the liberal arts. Compared to other community colleges, the instructors at Saint Paul spend more time teaching students to evaluate and synthesize information, make judgments about it, and apply concepts to perform new skills. This is as true in vocational classes as it is in the traditional liberal arts disciplines. After all, in a fast-changing economy, the specific skills you learn in college might be obsolete in five or ten years. Students who are adept at learning and adapting won’t need retraining down
the line.

That’s why Strand, the carpentry instructor, spends a lot of time showing his students photographs of commercial architecture in places like sandy Dubai—which arguably has nothing to do with the kind of work they’ll do in snowy St. Paul, Minnesota. This is important, he says, because the construction trade changes so quickly—students need to be able to spot trends and possibilities in order to be leaders in their field. “I’ve just got to open up their minds and show them, wow, what’s going on,” he says. “Expand their horizons and open up their minds to think about the future.”

In this way, Saint Paul hasn’t just brought the hands-on ethos and intense student-faculty interaction of the trades to the liberal arts. It’s brought the critical thinking and wide perspective of the liberal arts to the trades.

For most community colleges, guiding students all the way to a degree is a major problem—less than a quarter of full-time students graduate in three years. Saint Paul’s graduation rate of 41 percent is well above the national average. This is another reason Saint Paul sits atop Washington Monthly’s rankings, which give 15 percent weight to graduation rates. The college’s “Power of You” program offers free tuition to graduates of St. Paul’s public schools. (The program was initially funded by foundations and corporate donors, and now the school has picked up the tab with hopes that the state eventually will.) Students in the program have access to counselors called “retention specialists,” whose job is to help them if they run into academic trouble. Through Saint Paul’s “early alert” system, teachers can send the retention specialists an online alert when they notice a student struggling. Retention specialists then get in touch with the student and try to sort it out. The program received an award from the state and is being copied at other schools in Minnesota.

“Our population is extremely diverse, a high proportion of immigration students—disadvantaged, underrepresented, urban, and gritty,” says Thomas Matos, director of student services. “There are expectations that the assumptions have to be lower. What Saint Paul College has done is said, ‘You know what, our expectations have to be high. You have to work for the grades you get in the classroom.’ And then we work to give them the services that support them.”

Saint Paul isn’t wealthy—per-student spending is below average compared to the hundreds of colleges in the CCSSE survey. Its students face the same challenges that community colleges contend with nationwide. The lesson it teaches—not just to its students, but to everyone—is that excellence isn’t limited to the relative handful of colleges that can afford to pick their students. When it comes to teaching, any college can be great.

That’s good news for students like Corey Sass. A high school football standout, Sass was recruited to play running back at the University of Minnesota’s Crookston campus. Academics weren’t exactly high on his mind, and at first, that didn’t seem to be a problem. His coaches picked his classes around his workout schedule, and they didn’t really talk much about academics. The message was clear: school didn’t really matter as long as he played well.

So when Sass failed out and lost his scholarship, he felt betrayed by his coaches. “I guess I felt like maybe they should have done a little more to make sure I was getting my classes done.”

Sass worked for a number of years in construction before he was ready to continue his education. At Saint Paul College, he has thrived. His first classes, in art history and speech, helped him discover a new dimension of his own interests and capabilities. “I did well, and that gave me confidence,” he says.

Now, Sass has completed the one-year diploma in carpentry—and along the way he’s discovered he loves learning. One day he hopes to run his own construction company. He knows he won’t be able to swing a hammer forever, so he plans to continue on with his bachelor’s degree—or maybe more.

“I love going to school,” he says. “I joke around with my friends that I want to be a carpenter with a PhD.”

Erin Carlyle

Erin Carlyle is a reporter in Minnesota.