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Post-high school education goal should be tops for Dayton, Legislature

Date Published: 01/24/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President


Start with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent visit to Minnesota and his frequent and urgent plea for Americans in all states to set a goal of regaining our top international ranking in higher education attainment by the year 2020.

Add to that the post-Tucson resolve in many quarters of our state and nation to start collaborating and finding common ground to solve problems, and to build bridges across our ideological divide.

Add to that the new emphasis by the Legislature’s Republican majorities and by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton on “outcomes” in state budgeting - and the need to actually set goals for our governments and public investments.

And there we have possible convergence on one overarching long-term objective that we must establish in 2011: An official goal in Minnesota that by 2020, 75 percent of our students will obtain a post-high school academic degree or work force credential.

Right now, only about 50 percent of our 25-to-34-year olds have successfully completed some type of higher education course of instruction, whether it’s a certificate qualifying one to work as a personal-care attendant, technical college completion in a skilled trade or a bachelor’s degree. Too many of our kids are still not even completing high school (about 15 percent, though graduation rates are slowly improving) and too many are starting, but not finishing, higher education coursework.

Granted, our rate of higher-ed completion is far better than most states and near the top. But the current rate won’t be good enough to compete in a rapidly changing technological and global economy, a world that will be relentlessly demanding higher skills and more and better education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math.

If a 75 percent goal for Minnesota seems arbitrary, consider this: A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has calculated that by 2018 Minnesota will need 70 percent of its workforce to have some type of post-high school education. Click here to download the report.

Minnesota ranks third highest among the states in the Georgetown study in the long-term need for post-secondary education. That’s in large part because our economy already is considerably “smarter” than most other states’, owing to decades of wise public investment in schooling and also to innovative and progressive business leadership.

And some of the greatest support for higher education excellence and attainment is coming from the business community.

Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director Charlie Weaver and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President David Olson, in particular, have been banging the drum for education reform and redesign to meet those long-term needs.

Weaver recently authored an op-ed calling for Minnesota to reform and redesign toward a goal of “world-class education.” And the theme of the chamber’s business luncheon with Duncan was “Best in Class: Building a World-Class Education System.”

Minnesota’s major philanthropic foundations are strongly supporting that general direction, with the St. Paul Foundation, Blandin Foundation, Travelers Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, Bush Foundation and others leading the way on initiatives including teacher quality and early childhood investment.

Two important subthemes - disparities between races and income groups in academic success, and a pressing need for better early childhood education - stand out as we begin crafting policies and making investments (yes, spending new money or reallocating current dollars) at the state and local levels to achieve the higher-education attainment goal.

We will not reach the 75 percent attainment goal without aggressively addressing the achievement gap, the yawning difference on test scores and higher-ed attainment between children from white and upper and middle-income families, and those from low-income and African-American, Latino and American Indian families.

The latter populations are growing faster than the white population, providing huge potential for Minnesota’s economy and business growth - if improved educational outcomes are targeted and made for those communities.

We also can’t get to the goal without relentless focus on improving early childhood education. Mounting evidence shows that early brain development is a crucial factor in improving the odds of success in learning and in life.

Art Rolnick, former vice president and research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is telling legislators these days that expansion and improvement of early childhood education is the most effective economic stimulus plan they can enact.

Nation-leading and even world-leading educational attainment might not solve all our problems or deliver us to utopia. And, in general, partisan leaders and ideological interest groups need to stop promising too much.

But there is a vast and growing consensus, especially in Minnesota, that knowledge is both liberating and lucrative, and that providing top-quality schooling to all our students, from birth through adulthood, is extraordinarily beneficial for societies and their economies.

And the first step in getting there is to set a measurable goal. Let’s hope our DFL governor and GOP Legislature can come together around that.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Monday, January 24, 2011.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.

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