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Push to increase ‘educational attainment’ in Minnesota reveals stark racial disparities

graduate
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash
While two-thirds of white adults in Minnesota have some kind of post-secondary credential, the rates are much lower for people of color.

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.”

Dennis Olson
Dennis Olson
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.”

Percentage with certificate or higher credentials
Source: Minnesota Office of Higher Education, IPUMS microdata version of U.S. Census Bureau 2012-2016 American Community Survey, with tabulations and additional analysis by the Minnesota Demographic Center
Associate’s degree or higher attainment by detail race groups
Source: Minnesota Office of Higher Education, IPUMS microdata version of U.S. Census Bureau 2012-2016 American Community Survey, with tabulations and additional analysis by the Minnesota Demographic Center

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.”

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 08/22/2019 - 11:50 am.

    It is absurd to have a goal of how many people should have post secondary education. The goal should be for people to have the skills to have decent jobs that pay well and are personally rewarding.

    In the old days, High Schools used to provide those skills for many students, so they could go directly into a trade or other job without further training. The proliferation of post secondary education is just as much a reflection of the decline of the public schools in preparing its students for a productive life as anything else.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 08/22/2019 - 01:28 pm.

      The decline in our public schools is without doubt. The fix is even easier. However, the decline is a desired result of Republican policies against minorities, unions, and other stakeholders. They would much prefer to have poorly functioning schools so that many students do not receive a quality education, are required to live on federal assistance which ensures the businesses which hire them don’t have to pay a living wage. Then they can cynically blame schools for not teaching students, all the while sponsoring the true stultification of students, and a waste of taxpayer dollars, in the form of school vouchers for primarily religious oriented schools.

      • Submitted by Kim Johnson on 08/23/2019 - 10:16 am.

        What policies??? What Republican policies against minorities hinder their ability to get an education?

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 08/23/2019 - 11:25 am.

          That’s simple. Look no further than the demonization of unions which are, actually, a net positive for education. Additionally, their attempts to cut education funding are too numerous and obvious to list. With a little research you can find these examples in every state, and every Republican candidates’ platform all the way up to Betsy Devos.

          Now, that does not mean I agree with every Democratic idea about education, but I at least take their ideas as serious attempts to fix a problem

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 08/23/2019 - 11:31 am.

          Additionally, to reduce funding to schools, especially the poor districts which don’t have a tax base willing to pass levies, this is a plus for Republicans. It keeps a significant segment of the population marginalized, and unable to build coalitions which would clearly be against Republican interests.

          To have actually functioning schools which teach children based on classical liberal values of the enlightenment would create a crisis of democracy. Previously marginalized segments of the population would begin pressing legitimate grievances in the public sphere. This would be unnacceptable. Republicans are happier with poorly funded schools which teach conformity and stupidity, and not true knowledge valuable in today’s economy.

  2. Submitted by John Evans on 08/22/2019 - 01:43 pm.

    I’m as skeptical about this kind problem definition and goal-setting as anyone, but it seems clear that it has to be done. We have a disparities problem and it’s going to limit our state’s future economic growth if we don’t address it.

    Some student populations may more expensive to educate than others. So what? You have put to your focus, your effort and your money where the problem is. You can’t sit around and point fingers or demand a return to what you thought worked just fine in the past.

    • Submitted by Andrew Andrusko on 08/22/2019 - 02:15 pm.

      At a local level the majority of institutions that are accessible and the least costly are the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. No one is willing to fund them at the same level as private colleges or the University of Minnesota. The state legislature gets vitriol every time consideration is given to funding MnSCU students at an equal rate as other institutions. No one, not even the DFL is willing to do that for fear they are seen as not supporting the state’s land grant.

      The real push here is that our regional universities and local community college budgets get squeezed smaller each year in terms of real dollars to were being able to make any sizable progress will come at the cost of the quality of the education.

  3. Submitted by lisa miller on 08/22/2019 - 01:59 pm.

    One big help would be more guidance counselors–ones that have strong training, for kids starting in 8th grade or 9th to assist in identifying their strengths and where that could go in terms of jobs. Add to it, more teen internships and also tech school–college is not for everyone, but if it is, prepare people before the junior year. Add to it, equal funding state wide vs relying on property taxes. And more parent involvement, schools can’t raise children and some parents may feel at a loss on how to direct their children into good careers. There is no reason the US should be looking overseas for tech jobs, nurses, etc., there is a strong pool of people here to be trained and supported.

  4. Submitted by Matthew Miller on 08/22/2019 - 02:27 pm.

    To reach the goal of 121,000 credentials, we cannot limit our notion of students as only those graduating from high school. Minnesota enrolls over 60,000 students in adult basic education programs each year. While these programs across the state provide free education to help adults develop basic reading, writing, math and English skills, they also provide an opportunity for adults to earn certificates and training for greater employment.

    Through a partnership with MN DEED, job seekers attend classes in careers such as Health Care, Office and Administration Technology, Precision Sheet Metal and Call Center Agent. At Metro North Adult Basic Education, a consortium of 8 school districts in the norther suburbs, 69% of those enrolled are students of color and 53% are between 25 to 44 years old. Supporting these students in transitioning to certificate programs and higher education is an untapped resource of our state workforce. This short newsletter gives examples of programs that already exist and just need to be support. bit.ly/MetroNorthABENews

  5. Submitted by Andy Briebart on 08/23/2019 - 06:46 am.

    Get more people in the building trades.

    Right now, you will start working while going to school. Your employer will pay some of your schooling. You will get into one of trade unions.

    Become a pre-apprentice then after after a few months you get benefits. You will be working and have less debt. If you are a minority or a woman, as long as you are a hard worker, you will never be laid off.

    If at some point its too hard of work, to cold of work, to hot of work, you could get into estimating, sales, or project managing for a supplier or contractor. If you have computer skills, you can work in the layout department using Autocad or Revit.

    Less debt, working while you learn, and benefits.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 08/23/2019 - 11:33 am.

      As a former teacher, I’ve always supported this idea. It works very well in Germany, which has the lowest youth unemployment rate in Europe.

  6. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 08/25/2019 - 11:06 pm.

    We will accomplish nothing useful so long as we continue to define ‘attainment’ as having received a high school diploma (without regard to qualifications or having actually done anything to earn it other than spend time within the four walls of the school), or post-secondary degree/certification (without regard to whether a student has ‘attained’ anything that actually helps to make them EMPLOYABLE).

  7. Submitted by Terry Frawley on 08/26/2019 - 06:30 pm.

    It would be interesting to review the information used to set these goals. Perhaps a dartboard?

    It is interesting that only one level of research is used, allowing for all kinds of speculation.

    Take it one step farther, using detail race groups income. Then compare that graph with ‘Associate’s degree or higher attainment by detail race groups.’

    Or percent of the detailed race groups that take the ACT or SAT. Or the ratio of detailed race groups that graduated from high school compared to that went on to complete post-secondary educations.

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