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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.

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.

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/08/2009 - 08:03 am.

    That’s a laudable goal, Dane.

    I hate to be a naysayer, but how are we going to meet it when over 40% of the students in two of the state’s largest public school districts do not even graduate from high school?

    How are we going to move forward when 25% of the students that do graduate from Minnesota’s public schools require remedial work in the basic, core subjects before moving on to college level curriculum?

    10,9,8,7…….

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 09/08/2009 - 02:22 pm.

    You should interview arne Carlso he was always a big supporter of community colleges and came from a humble family.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/08/2009 - 08:13 pm.

    Mr. Smith, You have teased our some excellent points and issues regarding advanced degrees and the funding of higher education.

    A few of my neighbors up here on the lake teach engineering out in California and we’ve spent hours on the subject this summer. One of the critical points that they emphasize is that fifty to sixty percent of the students that are attending their classes are non US born. These professors feel that by allowing an expansion of the H1 visa program, it could be very beneficial to our economy. The fact that many of the start up companies in the early tech revolution were started by non US born individuals.

    It makes sense to allow these bright individuals to stay and contribute instead of being forced to go home upon completing the advanced degree.

    As for the naysayer:

    Strange thing about education reform is that everyone thinks they are an expert just because they went to school. No need to review the existing research on what actually works in practice because teaching is so easy that anyone could do it, right? It’s kind of like people thinking they are qualified to advise on economics just because they have a bank account.

    John Hattie has an excellent book called “Visible Learning” summarizing thousands of studies on education. Yes, good teachers do make a difference, but there are numerous factors that contribute. Good students tend to do better regardless of the school, so paying more to get better teachers will have a limited effect (and don’t forget, if you really want to improve schools, you have to be willing to pay market rates to convince good people to work as teachers).
    Teaching is actually very similar to management, you have to persuade people to do things they often don’t want to do. However, managers can sack lazy workers, but teachers can’t sack lazy students, you have to deal with them. This makes identifying good teachers very difficult because objective measures of performance are difficult or impossible. There are huge problems using standardized test scores to rate teachers. One is that even a few problem kids in a class can make a huge difference to mean score gains, so you need some way of analyzing score gains to isolate the contribution of the teacher from all the “noise” in the data. Very few administrators have the statistical skills to do that rigorously enough to stand up in court. Let’s face it; most people with post-graduate training in statistics or psycho-metrics are going to work in fields that pay much more than education.

    Another major problem concerns “regression to the mean”, a well-known problem in statistics that is frequently overlooked in analyzing standardized test results. This paper by an Educational Testing Service researcher
    http://tinyurl.com/mebdvg
    describes the problem. I would suggest that anyone who can’t follow the fairly basic statistics in that report, really has no business demanding that people be sacked. I am all for performance evaluations of teachers, but, if you take the issue seriously, then take the time to learn how to do it properly and be prepared to pay higher taxes to attract, train, and retain good teachers.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/09/2009 - 11:27 am.

    “…if you really want to improve schools, you have to be willing to pay market rates to convince good people to work as teachers)”

    Say, that is an excellent idea!

    How much is the market paying someone with a Masters degree in Physics, or Math, or Biology, or Chemistry, or Engineering?

    I’m guessing it’s more than someone with a Masters in Liberal Arts…actually, I know it for a fact.

    Problem is that the teachers union doesn’t see any difference…that’s why there is a shortage of teachers in the former group and a plethora of the latter.

    Oh, and I love it when this one pops up:

    “This makes identifying good teachers very difficult because objective measures of performance are difficult or impossible.”

    Funny, isn’t it, that companies hiring people practicing in *every* other profession *somehow* manage to separate the wheat from the chaff, isn’t it?

    But you can’t measure a teacher’s performance…nope, can’t do it. Too hard. Forget it, just hand over the raise.

    We’ll just stick with the status quo because it’s working *so* well.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/09/2009 - 01:32 pm.

    That must have been your opinion you were expressing Mr. Swift. As I did not read any facts or case studies referenced to make it a fact filled based argument. Opinions are always very thoughtful Thomas. But dollars to donuts, facts really do matter Mr. Swift.

    I suggest you consult the link that I referenced. http://tinyurl.com/mebdvg

    best to all…

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