Minnesota lawmakers and business leaders have long said the state needs a better educated workforce to keep pace in the global economy.
So four years ago, lawmakers set a goal to dramatically increase the proportion of Minnesota adults who hold any sort of postsecondary educational qualification, be it a degree or certificate. And while the state has seen a rise in that number, known as higher education attainment, it’s been a small one: from 58 to 61 percent since 2015.
There’s a well-known reason progress is slow: While two-thirds of white adults in Minnesota have some kind of postsecondary credential, the rates are much lower for people of color. Only a quarter of Native Americans and Latinos have a credential higher than a high school diploma, and wide gaps exist for African-Americans and some Asian-American groups, too.
In fact, the state won’t meet its overall goal by 2025 unless it can dramatically improve educational attainment among communities of color. As Office of Higher Education Commissioner Dennis Olson puts it: Of the 121,000 credentials needed to put Minnesota’s attainment rate at 70 percent, 85,000 will need to be earned by nonwhite residents.
While the attainment goal has always been a high priority for the higher education office, the disparities the latest figures reveal have become a personal priority for Olson since his December appointment. A member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, he has long worked in roles advocating for Native American communities — most recently as executive director of the Indian Affairs Council — and a draft of the latest report on the attainment goal landed on his desk his first week on the job at the OHE. “It’s things I was aware of,” he said. “But actually seeing a 40- to 50-point gap in black and white on your desk is shocking.”
Higher education attainment measures the portion of people who hold some sort of postsecondary degree, from a certificate to a doctorate. It’s used by all states, and most have some sort of goal they’re working toward.
In 2015, the Minnesota Legislature set a goal that 70 percent of Minnesotans from age 25 to 44 have some sort of postsecondary degree or certificate by 2025. It wasn’t a magic number, but it was a high one, representing a 12-point leap over the 2015 attainment rate and an impressive feat in a metric often used to track how readily a state can meet workforce needs.
Minnesota has the third highest overall attainment rate among U.S. states, according to the 2018 state report. The national ranking has slightly different criteria from the state’s own method for keeping track of education credentials. The Lumina Foundation makes the state-by-state calculations and counts adults ages 25 to 64. By that method, Minnesota’s attainment rate is 54 percent. (OHE’s criteria, which tracks those 25- to 44-year-olds, translates to a current attainment rate of 61 percent.)
Lawmakers knew getting to 70 percent would be a challenge, especially for all ethnic communities. While Minnesota has a strong attainment rate for white and most Asian-American residents, there’s a 33-point gap between whites and Native Americans – the group with the lowest attainment rate in Minnesota. But ambitiousness was the point, Olson said, calling it “one of the loftiest attainment goals in the nation.”
Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate affairs at the University of Minnesota, estimated it took the university a couple of decades to see the kind of statistical improvement in four-year graduation rates that the state hopes to achieve for Native American communities. “You really want stretch goals, so that’s kind of where we are,” McMaster told MinnPost about the attainment goal.
Few take issue with the goal of achieving more college graduates, and both the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State systems have a number of programs and offices dedicated to helping new students navigate academic life and walk away with a diploma.
One of those programs at Minnesota State, called the Summer Scholars Academy, recruits and pays for new students to complete “developmental education” coursework during the summer before their first semester. Courses are offered in math, reading, and writing to help new students who aren’t prepared for college-level classes. Summer Scholars Academy also teaches learning strategies and study skills, and offers extra help with advising and other services.
Since the program started in summer 2017, it has saved Minnesota State students more than $277,000 by allowing them to take developmental courses for free. It also helps retain students who historically don’t complete programs at high rates because of the time or money it takes to get up to speed with college coursework.
Nationally, only 15 percent of developmental learners earn an associate’s degree. But 64 percent of Summer Scholars Academy’s first cohort were still attending a MinnState school at the end of their fourth semester, the school system says. Moreover, says Minnesota State Senior Vice Chancellor Ron Anderson, the program “really fits with our commitment to expanding access to students and helping those students that are at the cusp of being ready for college level coursework.”
As part of helping the state meet its attainment mark, Minnesota State set its own goal of eliminating educational equity gaps by 2030. But Chancellor Devinder Malhotra is under no illusion that the two- and four-year college system has the resources or know-how to ensure that all students can overcome whatever barriers they face. He says other state institutions, both public and private, need to step up. “There’s a reason these gaps have been so persistent for such a long time,” he said. “It’s not because of a lack of interest or effort.”
Initiatives by the state’s largest public university systems are critical, Olson said. But after studying the gaps that persist, he’s looking for new perspectives, too, especially from within communities that have been left out of past conversations. “Real answers lie within communities themselves,” Olson said. “They know themselves best. What a better way to inform our policy decisions.”
That approach represents a welcome change, says Raymond Burns, president of Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake. “It’s nice to have someone on the state level that understands tribal college and what we represent for our communities,” Burns said of Olson. “He recognizes there are a lot of stories and programs and ideas that come out of native communities that have been unheard.”