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Let’s make higher-ed completion our ‘shared and central mission’

Date Published: 10/18/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


It got scant news coverage, but a presentation last week by a national affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which was in perfect sync that day with one of the nation’s leading voices for boosting college completion and postsecondary training and education — may have far-reaching consequences in Minnesota.

More than a hundred attendees at a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce conference on “How to Make Minnesota the Skilled Workforce State” first were given a “Leaders and Laggards” report, comparing states on workforce training and education measures.

Bottom line, as usual, is that Minnesota’s public higher education systems were generally better than average and even “fairly solid” in most respects. And then the presenter got down to brass tacks and state recommendations.

“Sticking with Complete College America [a national alliance of states focused on completing degrees and workforce credentials] and setting concrete completion goals will help enormously,” said J. Domenic Giandomenico, director of education and workforce programs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce.

In a luncheon speech later, attendees heard exactly the same exhortation from Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based national philanthropy and the nation’s largest foundation committed solely to increasing postsecondary completion nationally and in the states.

Merisotis delivered a ringing endorsement of Minnesota’s need to set “The Big Goal,” to make a big deal out of it, and to make a specific target for attainment of meaningful credentials the state’s shared and central mission.

The statistical case for goal-setting is undeniable. All the facts and data support the timeless wisdom that a more skilled workforce is crucial for continued prosperity. And no other goal will be as important in closing Minnesota’s unacceptable racial inequalities in educational achievement and employment.

A frequently cited Georgetown University study estimates that by 2018, 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require some sort of post-high school degree or certificate. Estimates of current postsecondary attainment are sketchy, but generally hover around 50 to 60 percent, depending on ages included and the precise definition of credentials. According to Lumina, just under 50 percent of Minnesota adults currently have at least a two-year degree. For African Americans, the percentage with at least a two-year degree drops to 30 percent, and for Latinos it falls below 20 percent.

Between now and 2018, Minnesota will need to fill 902,000 vacancies resulting from job creation, worker retirements and other factors. Of those, 620,000 will require postsecondary credentials.

Also from Lumina: “In 2010, more than 669,000 Minnesota adults (24 percent of the adult population) had gone to college but did not have either a two-year or four-year college degree … Encouraging and helping these adults to complete degrees would go a long way to helping Minnesota reach [its goals].’’

For whatever reasons, despite our reputation for getting on top of these things and our sustained high rankings on most measures of education excellence, Minnesota has still not joined the growing number of states where governors and businesses and a broad coalition of leaders have made a big splash with high-profile statewide goals for postsecondary attainment.

Merisotis described how the Democratic governor of Tennessee set such a goal a few years ago, and how his Republican successor picked up on it, reinforcing and sustaining it. That kind of bipartisan continuity is practically unheard of these days, and is enormously encouraging.

The point is, there is no other goal that enjoys such broad support from labor and business, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. If Republicans after Nov. 6 maintain control of one or both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature, and our 22-year partisan deadlock remains in place, a bipartisan agreement with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton on an attainment goal might be the most exciting and hopeful place for both sides to meet.

Chamber of Commerce president David Olson, who recently served as chair of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities board of trustees, signaled at the meeting last week that business leaders in Minnesota are ready to join a goal-setting and goal-reaching campaign for workforce credentials.

Minnesota’s other major business association, the Minnesota Business Partnership, which consists of CEOs of the largest corporations, routinely promotes educational attainment as a top priority. At its annual dinner last week, the program featured principles for education policy reform that included “rigorous, world-class academic standards for all students.”

And although conservative George Will was the featured speaker at the MBP dinner, business support has been strong and persistent for President Obama’s highly publicized goal of recapturing our long-held status as the world’s most educated nation, measured by average years of attainment.
Minnesota has taken steps toward resuming its status as a true nation-leader. We are one of about 30 states that have officially joined the nonprofit Complete College America alliance (this happened rather quietly under Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty), although we lag behind the others in providing data and setting specific attainment goals, as Tennessee and Oregon have done.

In his speech to business and political leaders here, Merisotis expanded on how Minnesota is poised to become a leader in redesigning higher education, making it more student-centered and focused on a more meaningful new system of credentials, which he described as “learning-based, flexible and stackable.”

But first we need that big moment of universal buy-in and commitment, with all hands on deck working toward a specific goal with the help of a plan to get there, Merisotis said: “If you — as business and community leaders, as policymakers, as educators, as leaders in the field of philanthropy — if you can make the college-success effort your shared and central mission … it would help you earn that title as ‘the skilled workforce state.’”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, October 18, 2012.

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