Pressing the candidates for more college discussion

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MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

OK, let’s talk higher ed

Looks like more people are noting a lack of a higher education discussion among Minnesota’s gubernatorial candidates — and demanding more policy meat.

Two progressive Minnesota non-profit groups – Growth & Justice and the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership – are calling on the would-be govs to make higher-ed a priority issue in their campaigns.

One main reason: They want the state to boost higher education completion levels, especially among minorities, to 75 percent over the next 10 years.

The current college graduation rate is 50 percent. But it’s even lower among African Americans and Latinos, the fastest-growing populations in the state — and it’s the white elephant that no one talks about, organization officials say. Yet boosting that figure is key if the state expects to thrive economically.

“We can debate how to get there,” said Growth & Justice President Dane Smith. But “it needs to be a priority. We’re here to urge all candidates to get more serious about public policy (in higher education) and put some meat on the bones.”

So far, Smith has been realistic about how higher education so far has taken a back seat to other issues.

Candidates in primaries “are trying to nail down their party’s base of support – and those types of issues tend to be pretty narrow,” he said. “I’m hopeful that now they’ll look at big picture.”

To him and Jennifer Godinez, associate director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, that Big Picture means economic well-being driven by a larger pool of higher-ed graduates.

And by graduates, they’re not talking only about those with four-year degrees. Right now about half of young Minnesotans don’t even have a one- or two-year degree or certificate.

Smith’s and Godinez’s questions for the candidates:

  • What would you do to nip the problem in the bud in the K-12 years?
  • Should we set a goal for increased higher-education attainment as a state — and if so, how do we get there?
  • What would you do about the graduation gap between white college students, African Americans, Latino and Native American students in Minnesota?
  • Who are you thinking of appointing as the next commissioner to the Minnesota Department of Education and the Office of Higher Education?
  • How are you going to address higher tuition rates?
  • How will you continue investing in higher education, and how will you ask for results?
  • How will your agencies educate people about what they’ll be getting for their two- and four-year degrees?

In terms of policies, the two groups are looking for the following:

  • high-quality early childhood education for all;
  • individual mentoring;
  • lower tuition and more financial aid;
  • better K-12 teachers;
  • expansion of the Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, International Baccalaureate (IB) and other college-prep and college-credit programs;
  • engagement of parents and community leaders keep students aware of college opportunities and motivated to achieve them.

And if the candidates fail to address the issues? Consider the statistic provided by Growth & Justice:

Each new “class” of high school dropouts could cost Minnesota more than $10 billion over the course of their lifetimes.