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To lower student debt and build a work force, Minnesota should invest in community and technical colleges

REUTERS/Chip East
Almost 1 million Minnesotans have an astonishing $20 billion in student loan debt.

Lately it has been hard to open a newspaper or read a magazine without Minnesota exceptionalism hitting you squarely in the face. Over the last year Minnesota has been recognized by Forbes as one of the best states for business, named one of the healthiest states according to American’s Health Ranking, and named home to the best state fair and one of the smartest states in the country.

That exceptionalism is being threatened by another ranking that is shackling an entire generation in student-loan debt. Almost 1 million Minnesotans have an astonishing $20 billion in student loan debt. With that amount of money we could afford to build 20 new stadiums for the Vikings.

Minnesota ranks in third place for the highest proportion of students with debt, with 70 percent of Minnesotans owing student debt. All this debt is having a real impact on Minnesotans’ lives and the state’s economy. Student loan borrowers often have high interest rates and unmanageable debt loads, which affect their ability to repay their loans and make other life decisions. The New York Fed reported that 30-year-olds with student loan debt were less likely to own a home than those without student debt — the opposite of prerecession America.

Third highest tuition/fees in nation

The main reason that debt has increased so much in Minnesota is because the cost of community and technical colleges has skyrocketed in the last decade. Minnesota has the third highest tuition and fees for community and technical colleges in the country. Historically, community colleges have been considered a low-cost path to higher education and the middle class. Now the average student leaves a Minnesota community and technical college with $19,000 in debt.

It is no wonder an increasing number of students are thinking twice about a college degree, especially when median wages have only increased 1.6 percent over the last 25 years, while at the same time the median debt has risen by 163 percent.

This increase comes at a time when Minnesota needs even more well educated workers in order to meet the demands of the 21st-century economy. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce analysis, by 2020 two out of three jobs will require some form of post-secondary education or training [PDF] beyond high school.

To address these challenges, Minnesota will need to reinvest in Minnesota’s community and technical colleges in these three ways. 

First, community and technical colleges must become affordable to everyone again. We can do this by proactively moving Minnesota out of the top 10 highest in tuition and fees for our community and technical colleges. Such an investment will entice more students to attain an associate’s degree and not shackle them with unmanageable debt after they graduate.

Refocus on student success and retention

Second, we need to drastically revamp the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (MnSCU) to refocus on student success. The current system model no longer works for students. In order to graduate on time, students need community and technical colleges that work together and communicate effectively across multiple institutions, unlike the current system – a fiefdom that exists to protect the status quo. A new collaborative model for the system’s structure could better develop a more cost-effective model and deliver a better educational environment for students.

Finally, higher education in Minnesota must focus on improving student retention, completion and success. Too many students start at a community or technical college and yet do not complete a degree. Not only are these students stuck with debt from overpriced institutions, they also miss out on the benefit of the degree.

Community and technical colleges must prioritize student retention as one of the ways to address declining enrollment in the state. If institutions did a better job of retaining students, MnSCU would not be facing its current financial challenges caused by lagging enrollment.

Necessary to remain competitive

These three steps to reinvest in Minnesota’s community and technical colleges are critical to addressing the looming student-debt crisis. Minnesota community and technical colleges have the potential to provide the education and training that Minnesota needs to remain competitive and to ensure economic strength and vitality.

No other educational system in Minnesota has the geographic reach, community connections or educational capacity to address the pressing issues facing our economy. Minnesotans and their elected representatives must invest in their communities by investing in community and technical colleges to address the state’s challenges. That is the only way that Minnesota can continue to boast of our exceptionalism.

Kevin Parker is the president of the Minnesota State College Student Association (MSCSA). The association represents the 150,000 students attending Minnesota’s community and technical colleges. 

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 02/25/2016 - 01:08 pm.

    Great points!

    I would also add that early college during the high school years can help a lot. Many districts are expanding student options thru College in the Schools, Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate classes, and others.

    In addition to those courses, for example, in the Anoka-Hennepin School District alone they have – Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP) and a Technical High School (both at the Anoka Technical College), StepAhead Online High School, Center for Engineering, Mathematics and Science Center (at Blaine High School), Biomedical Sciences Program – linked with Project Lead The Way program (at Coon Rapids High School) and Bridge to College.

    Students can earn up to a year, or more, of college credits at little or no cost to the family. Some also do PSEO classes if they are suited to be at a college campus. Some students have graduated from high school with as much as two years of college credit and no debt.

    The bad news is that the Higher Education Learning Commission and other institutions have been less than encouraging in the expansion of these college credit courses. They should be embracing these efforts so that as many students as possible can experience post secondary options.

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