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Candidates for governor ought to rally public behind goal of boosting post-secondary degrees

Every gubernatorial campaign website that pops up these days predictably features a page called “Issues” or “Priorities,” and in these early stages, they all have an “under construction” look.

Every gubernatorial campaign website that pops up these days predictably features a page called “Issues” or “Priorities,” and in these early stages, they all have an “under construction” look.

It’s a good bet that all of the 20-odd candidates and explorers are right now huddling with their inner circles and top advisers and trying to put some meat — some substantive policy analysis and prescriptions — on those bones. And an unscientific survey of the content suggests that “jobs” is the most frequent theme.

Here’s an even better place to start, a can’t-miss campaign centerpiece and a top policy goal for those issues-and-agenda pages: Let’s set an end-of-decade, breathtakingly bold goal of a 50 percent increase in the percentage of our young adults who have some sort of higher-education credential on their resumes.

If that sounds a little clunky, there are lots of ways to break it into sound bites and catchy slogans. Here’s just one thought: Better Educated Minnesota = A Better Life and Broader Prosperity. Still too long for a bumper sticker, but you get the idea.

Right now, only about 50 percent of our kids by young adulthood (25 years old) have that crucial key to success, some sort of degree or higher-education certificate. If we can get it to 75 percent, we could realize billions of dollars more every year in increased productivity, more income on average for those with more education, more revenue for the state, and reduced expenditures on social and correctional programs.

Our own estimate from our Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students proposal at Growth & Justice is that there’s a million-dollar-per-person difference, over the course of a person’s life, between dropping out of high school and getting post-secondary degree of any kind.

These credentials don’t have to be, and likely won’t be, a classic four-year degree from a liberal arts college or traditional four-year university. Most of the gain toward this goal undoubtedly would come from attainment at community colleges, technical colleges and private schools that offer two-year, or even one-year, degrees and certificates.

President Obama, in an overdue celebration of the work done by community colleges, recently launched with considerable fanfare an American Graduation Initiative, aimed at recapturing America’s place as the most broadly educated nation in the world.

Obama said at the unveiling of the AGI in Michigan this summer that the aim is to produce an additional 5 million degrees and certificates by the year 2020. Minnesota’s share of that total would amount to some 100,000 more degrees than we have at the current rate of attainment.

That’s a lot more brainpower, the kind of thing that attracts employers, makes for better citizens, produces better parents and even brings healthier lifestyles.

We know for a fact that educational attainment correlates to all kinds of better outcomes. Studies show, for instance, that the education attainment of the mother is one of the best predictors of preparedness and success for children entering school.

But the political beauty of this goal is the way it reaches across the ideological spectrum and encompasses the key interest groups. Business loves it. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership have long been ardent champions of improved higher-ed attainment and a better-trained work force — and so have the labor unions.

Support for this goal is growing fast among a variety of other community groups and leaders. The Minnesota-based Bush Foundation, one of the state’s most respected philanthropy groups, has set the same 50 percent attainment increase as one of its three major goals. Nationally, the Indiana-base Lumina Foundation has set attainment increase as its sole focus.

The higher-ed imperative has been joined by center-right syndicated columnist David Brooks, who has pounded on the theme that America’s historical rise to economic dominance was based on our position as the country with the highest average education attainment. In the last few decades, we have slipped to an unacceptable 10th place, behind Japan, Canada and the European democracies.

Most important, every parent in Minnesota wants this for their children or their grandchildren, and the more community-minded folks want it for their neighbors’ children.

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To be sure, plenty of disagreement looms on how to get to the goal. Progressives favor public investment and the broadest possible reach, as well as special direct help for communities of color and low- and moderate-income families. Conservatives will favor some combination of private-sector incentives, parental choice and financing the investment by reducing the costs of public higher-education system.

But for a gubernatorial aspirant who wants to get voters motivated and interested, rallying everybody toward the same specific goal is more important than exactly how we get there.

And here’s another wild and crazy idea for a slogan. How about: “Getting Better by Degrees in Minnesota.” Or does that sound like support for global warming?

Dane Smith is president of Growth & Justice, a public policy think tank focused on Minnesota’s economy.