ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
A renewed focus on improving minority attainment will lead to a stronger and more equitable economy
Once upon a time, many Americans seriously believed that not everybody needed to learn how to read, or attend school, or advance very far toward a formal education.
In the 19th century, this actually was our public policy with regard to girls and racial minorities of both sexes.
This foolish and oppressive exclusion applied in various forms and at various levels to almost everybody who did not belong to the “white Anglo-Saxon protestant” male oligarchy.
Well into the 20th century, it was a common belief that not everybody really needed to attend high school. Until very recently, there were those who thought it unnecessary for everybody to finish high school.
We have made progress and have much to celebrate, but we also have a ton of work to do.
Although women as a group have caught up with men in college participation, African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians still lag far behind whites in obtaining college credentials, whether it’s a four-year, two-year or other higher-education certificate.
Evidence is overwhelming that education attainment is one of the most powerful economic propellants, the secret to our success.
Each successive level of attainment, whether it’s that one-year certificate or a Ph.D., produces more income for the individual and broad benefits for the economy and the community.
And yet, there are still people who raise objections to goals for much higher post-secondary attainment, such as the 60 percent mark that President Obama has set for the nation, and our own goal at Growth & Justice for reaching 75 percent attainment in Minnesota over the next decade.
This goal is shared by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, with a special emphasis on increasing attainment for our fast-growing non-white and newcomer populations.
Unfortunately, during a recent gubernatorial debate, three candidates declined to endorse this vision. Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, who right now is ahead in the sweepstakes to become the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate this year, said: “It’s not the job of the governor or Legislature to dictate what free people should be deciding.”
Drafting individuals into college and forcing them to finish isn’t what we had in mind, although it’s tempting, because the economic payoff is substantial. But short of imposing mandatory post-high school education, our governments and all sectors of our community must do everything possible to provide both incentives and dollars toward that goal.
Regardless of one’s choice of work, post-secondary skills will determine how well one will navigate an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 16 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations in the state require education beyond high school.
Meanwhile, an exciting demographic shift toward a more cosmopolitan Minnesota is transforming our K-12 system—making it ever more critical that those who attend post-secondary institutions reflect all our cultural communities.
The Minnesota Office of Higher Education projects a 40 percent increase from 2004 to 2015 in the number of high school graduates who are students of color and a 17 percent decrease in the number of white graduates.
So, how can we entice more and more folks from our increasingly diverse population to complete four-year high school degrees?
Here are three main strategies we can work on right now:
1) Ensure our K-12 schools are preparing students adequately for college careers: Evidence shows that students of color begin to fall behind their peers as early as elementary school, with reading and math scores diverging as early as the third grade. K-12 systems around the nation, however, have succeeded with Latino, African-American, Asian and American-Indian students—producing high numbers of high school graduates and college graduates.
The secret to their success is simple: persistent individual support. Educators succeed when they continue to find ways to provide tutoring support, bilingual services, counseling for Advanced Placement courses, and preparation for ACT test-taking skills equal to that of their white peers. Those who succeed do NOT throw up their hands and blame low test scores on families or the culture of their communities. They provide the support needed until achievement becomes infused throughout their school culture, and every staff member holds high expectations for every student.
2) Explain to more families how to pay for college: Increasingly, higher education is simply too expensive for most members of low-income communities of color. Public and private colleges, government agencies and K-12 systems must do a better job of educating all families on the options that exist to cover tuition. This does not mean just pointing to “two-year” college options, but explaining how the Pell grant and other financial aid opportunities can cover four years of college and graduate school training as well.
3) Analyze transfer rates: Increasingly, Minnesota students of color are attending two-year institutions. That’s good. However, let’s assess how these students are also guided towards completing a four-year degree. We must assess transfer rates in our community college systems to ensure more young folks are transferring and completing the four-year programs in higher education. Sending the message to young people of color that they are destined for only “some” college is the equivalent of saying that the top tiers of the knowledge economy are reserved only for white and high-income students.
Ultimately, our prospects for building a dynamic, innovative economy improve when we realize the full human potential from the variety of talent that exists in ALL our communities.
Isn’t it about time to discard the obsolete expression, “College isn’t for everyone”? After all, that’s the same as saying: “Prosperity isn’t for everyone.”
###Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues. He also spent 30 years as a writer for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he delved into state, local and federal governments and politics.
###Jennifer Godinez 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.