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Prepare now for Minnesota’s future higher-ed needs, Itasca report advises

U.S. state funding of higher education 2000-2010

Pity Cargill Chairman and CEO Gregory Page. Wednesday afternoon, as he stepped to the front of the room where the University of Minnesota Board of Regents was waiting to hear from him, the bank of TV cameras that had, until that precise moment, been trained on the seat he was settling into rushed out of the room.

Page was there to talk to the regents about the little matter of Minnesota’s future prosperity. The cameras were there, of course, to announce to the world that the regents had decided beer can be sold at TCF Bank Stadium.

Pity Page further: That unanimous decision came on the heels of a lengthy session of regent commentary on everything from the history of temperance in Minnesota to the difference between problem drinkers and devotees of “tailgating culture.”

The speechifying went on so long that Page, chair of a task force convened to consider higher education’s contributions to the economy, just had time to whip through his PowerPoint before Board Chair Linda Cohen thanked him, apologizing that there was no time for discussion.

In fairness, there’s no way the board could have heard Page’s entire report, which was eight months in the making and is only the first step in a three-year effort to make sure Minnesota’s colleges and universities are positioned to help drive economic growth and prosperity.

Convened by the Itasca Project

The task force was convened by the Itasca Project, a long-running effort by some 60 area CEOS, foundation heads and public-sector leaders concerned about the Twin Cities’ quality of life and economic vitality. Like other, similar Itasca efforts, the task force’s recommendations are based on research conducted by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

The bottom line: The state’s demand for better-educated workers is growing. By 2018, 70 percent of Minnesota jobs will require post-secondary education.

At the same time, the state’s investment in higher education is falling much faster than the national average. From 2000-2010, state funding for higher ed fell an average of 20 percent nationwide but 35 percent here.

Itasca strategic visionEducation has long been an Itasca Project priority, but the current effort became particularly timely last summer, when both the U of M and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU) inaugurated a new president and chancellor, respectively.

Eric Kaler and Steven Rosenstone — seemingly possessed of perfectly complementary personalities and skill sets — immediately vowed to work together to ensure that students and taxpayers are getting the most bang for their bucks in terms of work-force preparation, research and development and quality of life.

The two were joined on the task force by Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg, Page, seven other corporate executives and the president of the Initiative Foundation. Another 40 business and civic leaders made up an advisory group to the task force.

State is well positioned

Minnesota is well positioned in several ways, the groups found. The state ranks eighth nationally in the percentage of high-school grads who enroll directly in higher ed; the U of M ranks eighth nationally in terms of research and development spending; the state boasts more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other state, and is home to a number of innovative post-secondary models, including MnSCU.

In an effort to appeal to as diverse a cross section of students as possible, many of the state’s more than 200 post-secondary institutions attempt to provide broad offerings. Closer collaboration and increased cross-enrollment could help to cut down on redundancies, while partnerships can take advantage of different programs’ strengths.

One example: The U of M and MNSCU’s nanotechnology partnership, which allows students access to programs with both applied and theoretical strengths.

Hand in glove with reduced state investment in higher ed, however, has come reduced emphasis on the national level. The United States has the second-highest percentage of adults ages 35-64 holding associate’s degrees or higher; the U.S. rate is the same for 24- to 34-year-olds, but nine other countries now graduate more degree-holders.

Half of those enrolled don’t graduate

Half of all students who enroll in higher ed in Minnesota fail to graduate, for a variety of reasons. Some are not leaving high school with the skills necessary to keep up. Others can’t afford escalating tuition or must work too many hours.

Greg Page
CargillGregory Page

Simultaneously, job creation rates have fallen. In the 1990s, Minnesota’s employment growth outpaced the national average by up to 1 percent. From 2002 to 2010, though, it fell below average.

Degree-holders aren’t the only ones who benefit from a robust higher-ed system, the task force also reported. Compared to states where 23 percent of the population has graduated from college, wages are higher for everyone in states where 38 percent are graduates.

Advanced degree holders in better educated states earn 6 percent more; bachelor’s holders 20 percent; high-school grads 27 percent and those with less than high school 32 percent.

A history of creating change

On a practical level, how does such a broad set of goals and values translate to concrete change? An example from Itasca’s own history is instructional. A decade ago, the organization was instrumental in galvanizing business-community support for early childhood education, then regarded as a social-welfare issue, rather than one of kindergarten preparedness.

Momentum generated by Itasca and others last year finally culminated in the creation of a fledgling state infrastructure to support high-quality pre-K programming.  

The group is turning its attention to the appointment of a number of working groups that will begin turning the task force’s recommendations into ground-level programming. Minnesotans can also expect to hear more about the relationship between the economy and higher ed as a strategic communications plan is developed and implemented.

In sum, the regents likely will have plenty more opportunities to hear about the task force’s work.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Rod Loper on 07/12/2012 - 11:48 am.

    Great work MSM!

    No wonder Minnesota citizens remain ignorant of the issues in Higher education. It would be nice
    if the corporate leaders would open their purses to stem this sad trend in public support.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 07/12/2012 - 03:07 pm.


    It is interesting to hear the rhetortic of being in the top ten of the various educational and corporate lists. The reality is the US educational system is failing our children when compared to our competition, the global world. China turns out more engineers than the US and European countries do better against US students in standardized testing. I moved from back to MN from the metropolitan DC area where there is an amazing brain trust of corporate and government workers involved in the educational system especially in suburban Maryland where they have the highest concentration of Phd’s in the US. The UofM is like many US universities that spend too much time and money on athletic programs and not enougth discussing the real future of 99.9% who want a degree and are not potential professional athletes.

  3. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 07/12/2012 - 10:28 pm.

    Could we import some workers?

    Maybe some of the workers will come from other states or countries. Certainly it would be nice if we hired many of our own but it seems unlikely that college-requiring jobs will go unfilled if Minnesotans don’t take them.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/13/2012 - 08:31 am.

    A disturbing trend

    While the dropping lines on the chart are certainly reason for more than casual concern, and much of the difference gets made up via student and parent checkbooks, I found myself wondering what would happen if we added a couple more lines to the chart, representing, respectively, national and state increases in cost/tuition per student BEYOND the drop in state aid.

    Like medical care, college costs have risen almost geometrically in the past couple decades – far more than the cost of living, faculty salaries, the cost of paper, etc. Some of that increase is surely driven by the short-sighted adoption of Scrooge-like attitudes in the state legislature, but I wonder – I confess I don’t begin to know – to what degree cost increases to students and parents have been driven by other factors. Maybe it’s only a little, maybe it’s a lot, but I’d like to see further analysis. In Colorado, for instance, the state legislature is constitutionally restrained from cutting the budget in several major areas, leaving higher education as one of the few places where the state’s overall budget can be tightened when times get tough. The result is that the state’s colleges and universities end up taking most of the hit – far out of proportion – when the economy goes south because other areas are untouchable. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, at least formally, but perhaps informally…?

    With or without Michele Rhee, I’ve not read anything to suggest that the schools in D.C. proper are particularly praiseworthy, but the surrounding VERY wealthy suburbs probably fit the description given to the metro area by Dave Frenkel. There’s a LOT of money in the area, and that usually means well-funded schools. Well-funded schools, oddly enough, tend to have larger proportions of students who do well on the standardized tests our culture has increasingly come to view as measures of educational efficacy. Gosh, I wonder what that means?

    I’m also inclined to agree with Mr. Frenkel’s criticism of the U here in terms of athletics, one which seems to me applicable to far, far too many institutions all over the country. Every taxpayer dollar spent on interscholastic athletics – at both the high school and college/university level – is, in my view, a dollar wasted. Those who really want to play sports could play them on an intramural or club basis, where the cost would be borne by players and fans – in effect exactly the sort of “user fee” so often touted as a fiscal solution in other contexts – without being a drain on either the finances or the ethics (see: Penn State) of the institution.

  5. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 07/13/2012 - 12:18 pm.

    Is anyone else sick of the jerks at the Itasca Project telling us what to do? These are the same folks who are foisting the MinnCans, Michelle Rhees, Charter Schools, Testing, privatization of education, etc on us. It’s just more opaque plutocracy.

  6. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 07/13/2012 - 04:05 pm.

    itasca project

    While I agree with the goals of the Itasca Project board members–they all seem to benefit Minnesota and encourage its prosperity–I do wonder at the makeup of this group. CEOs, high-level college administrators, former governors, mayors, etc. This group could benefit by a few ordinary, grass roots citizens. There is not (as far as I can see) a single black person, or a hispanic person, native american or someone who really represents us. I don’t see a single person I can relate to in any personal way: Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Bruinik, Pawlenty, Rybak. These people don’t represent me. Where are the agricultural leaders? Why not someone like Myron Orfield? Almost every day I read an obituary of some local person who I’ve never heard of but who has been quietly working in the background to try to improve our lives and I think, Why have I never heard of this person.
    Surely this group could be expanded to include a few more non-whitebread successful executives.

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