The right to an education is rooted in the very fabric of Minnesota’s identity. Throughout our state’s history, investments in education built a great quality of life for Minnesotans and a strong middle class that drove the state’s economy. That quality of life is in jeopardy if we don’t find ways to encourage more Minnesotans to pursue an education after high school.
The state’s future is at risk because we have forgotten the value of education that was laid out by our state’s founders. The Minnesota State Constitution (Article 8, Section 1) states that it’s the responsibility of the Legislature to fund a public education system because, “the stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people ….”
This fundamental right to a quality education needs to be updated for our modern world from what the founders outlined in the state Constitution. It is no longer enough to just obtain a high school degree. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that three in four jobs in Minnesota will require education beyond high school. Yet only one in two Minnesotans have met this requirement and the state is short 440,057 postsecondary degrees to meet the workforce demands, according to the Education Commission of the States.
The No. 1 barrier to students obtaining a degree is the high cost of college. A recent report by LeadMN found that not one community college in the state can be considered affordable. Gone are the days when students can work over the summer and make enough to go to college.
At a time when we need to combat these challenges, Gov. Tim Walz is investing more money into a broken system called High Tuition – High Aid. The governor’s budget is going to lead to significant tuition increases for students attending Minnesota public colleges and universities, while the financial aid increases will not keep pace with tuition hikes.
This model has been around for 20 years and is the main reason that higher education has priced many low- and middle-income families out of higher education and perpetuated one of the worst opportunity gaps in the country. This entire system is built around the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is one of the largest barriers for low-income students entering college because of the complexity of the application and a verification process that stops one in four students who complete the application from getting the aid that they desperately need.
Worst of all, the state grant program is contributing to Minnesota’s educational inequities because it gives less financial aid to low-income students and students of color. The average state grant to a community college student is $956, while a private college student receives $4,533 in aid. Minnesota community colleges teach twice the number of low-income students and 15,000 more students of color.
The governor should focus on dismantling this system, not doubling down on it. The confusing aid process leaves too many students with too much debt or scares them away from ever pursuing a degree. If the state grant program was working so well, why are so many students of color still deterred from pursing a degree after high school?
While debt for an education is normally a good investment, we are creating a system where only the well-to-do can afford to obtain a post-high-school degree and the rest of us need to borrow large amounts of money to pay for school.
This has happened at the same time when a degree after high school is a basic requirement for our modern economy. In the last century, as Minnesota moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, we ensured everyone the right to a free secondary education. Now, as our economy has again transitioned to a post-industrial economy that requires more education to compete, it is time for Minnesota to provide a free education from pre-school to grade 14.
By investing in Minnesotans, the Legislature can fulfill its duty to the people of Minnesota as envisioned by the state’s founders. Education has critical value in ensuring the stability of our democracy and way of life.
Julia Yates is a student at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Cambridge.
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