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Star Tribune Editorial: What Minnesota could do with more college grads

Date Published: 05/01/2009


Star Tribune Editorial: What Minnesota could do with more college grads

Star Tribune | February 15, 2004
By Lori Sturdevant

In Minnesota, the natives are probably more winter-weary than restless right now. But among policy wonks, a subspecies that frequents the Capitol, restlessness is on the rise. They say it seems like years since they grappled with a truly big idea for solving a big problem.

Let's be fair now: Gov. Tim Pawlenty has put a few such folk to work on a few worthy projects, and promised in his State of the State message to launch a few more. But this governor still talks a lot about "no new taxes," and that's not a vision. It's a restriction on available means, not an end.

Here's a vision for you: Imagine a Minnesota economy that thrives because of the high educational attainment of the workforce, and allows a larger share of working adults to provide a decent living for themselves and their families, without government support. Imagine achieving that result with a modest increase in and reallocation of state resources, targeted at producing a 30 percent increase in the number of students who graduate from Minnesota colleges each year.

That goal, and a plausible, multifaceted program for achieving it, are the first fruits of the new multipartisan, progressive policy forum, Growth & Justice. Spearheaded by Joel Kramer, the former publisher of this newspaper, and a board of 20 well-credentialed wonks, Growth & Justice is off to an impressive start.

This month, Pawlenty commissioned another fine policy group, the Citizens League, to examine the structure and alignment of the state's higher education system. The Growth & Justice work sets up that project nicely by giving it the right context. The first question Minnesota should ask is not how many campuses or collegiate systems the state needs, but how many college graduates it needs to have an economy that both grows and gives more workers livable wages.

The answer is about 10,000 more per year than graduate now with two- and four-year degrees, Kramer says. That would put Minnesota among the top five states in the nation in share of population with associate's degrees or more by 2015. The experts say that, in turn, would virtually guarantee Minnesota the kind of growth that boosts incomes across the wage spectrum.

A 30 percent jump in college grads per year is an ambitious but not impossible goal, Kramer claims, considering that Minnesota now ranks 17th among the states in postsecondary enrollment of its 18-to-24-year-olds. Growth & Justice is proposing a bundle of strategies to get the job done.

Most involve getting a bigger share of low-income Minnesotans into the classroom. For example: Put more money into the State Grant Program, and direct it to poor and part-time students. Make it easier for welfare recipients to go to college. Make child care subsidies as available for full-time students as for full-time workers. Allow unemployment comp benefits to continue if laid-off workers go back to school. Fund mentoring efforts to help low-income high school students find their way into college. Encourage online education, especially for the place-bound rural population.

Those aren't big-ticket items, but this one is: Stop the slide in state commitment to higher education. If the state is going to produce 10,000 more graduates a year, it needs to find room for 25,000 more students, most of them at state colleges and universities. That will take at least a 10 percent after-inflation increase in state higher ed appropriations and debt service, the group estimates.

That's already an aggressive policy agenda, and it's not half of what Growth & Justice recommends. The group also has a lot to say about upgrading the skills of the already employed, stepping up child care support, helping employers find training for their workers, improving K-12 education, and raising tax credits for those without the capacity to move up in wages. (Details will be posted at www.growthandjustice.org on Feb. 23.)

It can all be done for $500 million a year. That's about a quarter-percentage-point increase in the price of government -- still lower, as a percentage of personal income, than Minnesotans paid during the booming 1990s.

Affordable? It might be that the state is like a lot of people I know. They don't really know what they can afford until they see something they want to buy. Growth & Justice is helping Minnesota see a state they'd be willing to pay a little more for.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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