Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Why we’re stuck on higher-ed attainment — and why we need to boost it, right now

The teenagers break your heart with their candid storytelling — about the difficulty of doing well in school while drifting between homeless shelters and attending 15 different schools, about the chronic anger of dysfunctional and impoverished famil

The teenagers break your heart with their candid storytelling — about the difficulty of doing well in school while drifting between homeless shelters and attending 15 different schools, about the chronic anger of dysfunctional and impoverished families, about the irresistible appeal of street life, about ending up in kid prison.
And then these same young heroes, barely more than children, lift your spirits and explain how they somehow are rising above it all as they make their way to two-year or even four-year colleges.
Their stories are the stuff of “Challenging Expectations,” a superb documentary produced recently by Twin Cities Public Television and sponsored by the Travelers Foundation.

Watch it, by all means, if you want to understand more fully the biggest and most expensive public-policy challenge facing our state, its next governor, and all Minnesotans. (The 90-minute documentary package — one part mostly kids talking, the other with education leaders explaining problems and solutions — will air on Friday, Dec. 11, on the Minnesota Channel. You can also see excerpts on YouTube or watch it in its entirety at MN Video Vault. The subject is also explored in more depth by Wilder Research’s Twin Cities Compass and on the LearnMoreMN Blog.

The great challenge of our times is this. Only about 50 percent of our young adults have any form of higher-education credential by the age of 25. And there is overwhelming consensus that if Minnesota wants to succeed economically and sustain its superior quality of life, this percentage must rise dramatically. Growth & Justice and the Bush Foundation in Minnesota have set a goal of 75 percent higher-ed attainment by 2020. President Barack Obama has announced a similar American Graduation Initiative for major gains in national rates of higher-ed success. The documentary’s sponsor, the Travelers Foundation, also is investing generously, particularly in St. Paul Public Schools, in programs that increase college readiness and access for underrepresented students.

Here are some of the most compelling excerpts from the TPT/Travelers documentary, from some of the most informed and motivated state leaders, who are at the vanguard of a gathering movement for increasing achievement and attainment. I’ve framed their comments with my own formulation of the questions that they answer in the video.

Why is this so important, and won’t this cost more money?

Alice Seagren, commissioner, Minnesota Department of Education: “In 1950, 80 percent of the jobs in the United States were classified as unskilled. Today, 85 percent of the jobs in America are classified as skilled. … Moving up in our society and in our state today is increasingly connected to moving up educationally. … I would agree with economists who say that investing in education and making sure our kids are ready for success in post-secondary — whether that’s college, university, technical school — is essential. There’s a lot of things that the schools need to do this, but the money has to be there to back it up.”

Where should this investment begin?

Duane Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation and former Republican state Senate minority leader: “Eighty-five percent of brain development occurs before the age of 5. If you think about the peak of learning, it occurs at the age of 3. The peak of funding occurs at the age of 17. So we have a mismatch of how we can maximize our return.”

Why is there such a disparity between affluent and white students and poor and minority students? And do we need money or school reform?

State. Rep Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, chair of the K-12 Education Finance Division of the Minnesota House Finance Committee: “Children don’t come to school equal. We have very huge differences in the preschool experiences that they get. They have [ongoing] different deficits and positives during school. … Some people would say that if we just pour money into schools, that would do some good, and other people say if we would just do some reform, we wouldn’t need any new money, and I’m one who says we have to do both.”
Isn’t this all really a function of a public school system that is “broken”?

Kent Pekel, executive director, College Readiness Consortium, University of Minnesota: “The system is NOT broken. The system is producing what we [historically sought], meaning the traditional junior high, senior high system. It’s producing what it was designed to produce, which is about 25 percent to 30 percent of our kids college-ready. However, that is wholly insufficient for this new information age and global economy.

Is it really that urgent?
Yusef Mgeni, director of educational equality, St. Paul Public Schools: “I think we need to approach it with a real sense of urgency. We don’t have a lot of time. In fact, arguably, we may have already run out of time.”

And from Pekel: “I think in Minnesota, we are really right at that moment, that fundamental moment, where we’re going to decide as a state whether our educational trajectory is going to be up or down. And so this really, really is a critical time to be raising expectations and also providing support.”

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a policy 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. A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.