Facebook Twitter RSS

A state half educated will not thrive

Date Published: 03/24/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President, Growth & Justice and Jennifer Godinez, Associate director, Minnesota Minority Education Partnership


Census trends and economic projections say we need greater educational equity

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s immortal “House Divided” declaration, we think it’s self-evident that our Minnesota economy will not stand if only our white children are mostly college educated, and the nonwhite population remains comparatively lacking in post-secondary credentials.

To be sure, we have made important progress as a nation and as a state in removing the most obvious barriers that effectively excluded racial minorities from post-secondary degrees. But completion rates remain disturbingly low for a population that is becoming less of a minority every day. Fact is, our grandchildren will live in a Minnesota that is far more racially balanced than it was as late as the 1970 census, when 98 percent of our population was white.

The release last week of initial U.S. census numbers confirms what experts have been saying about Minnesota becoming a much more colorful social mosaic. Our nonwhite and Hispanic population now exceeds 15 percent, and our rate of minority growth is among the highest in the nation. The percentages for communities of color are much higher than 15 percent in the dynamic Twin Cities core of our economy, while Latino and African immigrant populations are surging in greater Minnesota and Rochester.

Need more dramatic proof of the color of the future? Soon you will see more detailed census reports, and they will likely reveal that 25 to 30 percent of Minnesota children under the age of 5 are African, African-American, Latino, Asian or American Indian. That’s a snapshot of our next generation.

It is our strong conviction that this is a good thing, much more an asset and an opportunity than a problem. More diversity for the North Star State in a fast-globalizing economy and a flattening world gives us a broader perspective, a richer culture, a less provincial outlook and more multi-lingual capacity than we had as an all-European enclave. And given the latest marketing of the Twin Cities as a hub for the “creative class,” these characteristics bode well for the region’s capacity for innovation.

But this transformation also compels us to correct an educational imbalance that poses the most serious of all the threats to our economic future.

If we don’t soon start doing a better job of equipping African, African-American, Latino, Asian and American Indian youth with post-secondary degrees and certificates, Minnesota will actually begin to decline relative to other states.  And by now, most Minnesotans must be aware that test scores and other measures of educational success  for our nonwhite children are among the poorest in the nation, making a mockery of our trademark boast that all our children are above average.

Historically, Minnesota’s workforce has enjoyed high and rising rates of post-secondary education attainment. But we are failing to reach those levels of college enrollment and completion in the case of students of color.

According to calculations reported by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, the percentage of Minnesotans ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college is 9 percent lower for people of color than for whites. The gap is much higher for graduation rates at four-year institutions - 16 percent lower for all students of color, 12 percent for African-American students and 26 percent for Hispanic students.  Minnesota thus has one of the largest gaps in the nation between whites and people of color when it comes to degrees awarded per 100 college students, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

These disparities have serious implications as Minnesota’s college-age population becomes increasingly diverse.  Between 2004 and 2015, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education projects a 40 percent increase in the number of high school graduates who are students of color and a 17 percent decrease in the number of white graduates.

Meanwhile, reports and data supporting the need for higher education completion rates continue to pile up.  To cut to the bottom line, almost all such studies show that a high school education is no longer enough for building a middle-class life or a strong economy for our state. And we cannot achieve the levels of education attainment we need unless all our communities of color improve their post-high school completion rates.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recently found that by 2018, Minnesota will need to have 70 percent of its young adults equipped with a post high-school credential. Right now only about half our 25-year-olds overall have that certificate or diploma, and for minorities the figure is well under half.

We simply can’t arrive at the overall desired level without much better attainment for children of color. Business leaders, including the top corporate leaders of the Minnesota Business Partnership and the many medium-size business represented by the Chamber of Commerce, are in strong agreement that the gap must be closed.

So the good news is a growing consensus that this must happen. And the even better news is that years of solid research and experience have produced strategies and policies that can turn these numbers around.

Among them: setting a higher education completion goal of 75 percent by 2020 for Minnesota; aggressive investments now in high-quality early childhood education, a crucial factor in later academic success; legislation modeled on the “Dream Act,” or policies that ensure access to higher education for immigrant children who have been educated in our K-12 system; early college options in high school like those being proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton; and greater access to a larger pool of financial aid for low-income and middle-income students.

These kinds of moves may cost a little now, but they are investments that will pay off, providing a foundation that will result in prosperity for all of us. We simply must obliterate the false notion that how and whether we educate students of color has nothing to do with middle-class white America.

If we want to continue to enjoy the standard of living and quality of life that Minnesota has long boasted, we need to get this right.


A version of this coulumn originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, March 24, 2011.

Dane Smith is a regular Capitol Report columnist and president of Growth & Justice, a policy research group that seeks broader prosperity for Minnesota through smart investments in human capital and physical infrastructure

Jennifer Godinez is the is the associate director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, a multicultural collaborative focused on providing research and advocacy to increase the number of students of color who succeed in K-12 schools and universities here. MMEP initiated the Minnesota College Access Network (MCAN) to build more access to college in Minnesota.

Support Our Work