Why Minnesota needs to measure higher-education performance

Dayton address

Here’s a commentary submitted by James L. Applegate, vice president of strategic impact for the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based organization promoting higher attainment of postsecondary education.

Measuring Higher Education Performance is Good for Minnesota’s Future

By all accounts, the Minnesota Vikings had a great NFL draft, but a good draft is no guarantee of future success. It is how that talent is put to use that matters.

Similarly, state policymakers should be commended for their support of higher education this past legislative session. The ultimate payoff, however, will be in how that money is put to use to improve Minnesota’s workforce and its future. The true measure of success for committing significant new resources to any organization is found in how those resources fit the system and improve its overall function. Policymakers are hoping that their new investment, if strategically targeted, will help Minnesota meet its higher education attainment goals and workforce needs.

Projections show that Minnesota’s future economy will require 70 percent of its citizens to hold a college credential by 2018. Yet, at its current rate, the state will not even meet this goal by the year 2025 – when a projected 55 percent of the population will have a degree. So, the status quo will not suffice. Minnesota must use these new resources to accelerate progress if it is to continue to be an educational and economic leader among the states.

In Minnesota, nearly 46 percent of the adult population holds at least a two year degree. That’s slightly ahead of the U.S. average, but the state cannot support a vibrant economy going forward if it does not address the educational attainment gaps that are the result of uneven and unfair opportunities for college success among its fastest growing younger populations.   In 2012, Minnesota had the highest average composite ACT score among states in which more than half the college-bound students took the test, but when broken down by race and ethnicity, the numbers tell a different story. ACT scores for Hispanic students were over 2 points below the average and were nearly 5 points below the average for African American students.  Minnesota needs to do more to ensure that all students are prepared for college and can go on to earn their degree.

In March, I met with policymakers, higher education officials and business leaders to share what I’ve learned about measuring higher education performance around the country. The performance metrics included in the higher education funding bill and the increase from 1 to 5 percent of the two public systems’ appropriations tied to performance, reflect effective research-driven approaches that several other states have taken. They are aligned to the state’s goals, measurable over time and tailored to the unique aspects of the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems and the students they serve.

Incentives to keep track of, and improve, persistence and completion rates, administrative costs, degrees earned, student debt and employment rates will lead to more accountability, greater commitment to student success, and a transparency about results that promote continuous improvement.  And it will be important for this information to be reported in an understandable and accessible way so that parents and students can make informed decisions about the best places to invest in for a college education.

With its efforts, Minnesota will join other forward-looking states, who are driving dollars to institutions based on student progress and outcomes, recognizing that the success of low-income, adult and students of color is fundamental to the state meeting its goals, and supporting innovation in the delivery of quality programs and degrees.

It’s heartening to see policies that will improve accountability for financial aid and assist students in the timely completion of their programs. Minnesota is one of only two states that supports low-income students to take a real full-time schedule – 15 credits per term – thereby reducing their costs and raising the odds of completion. As a result, most of the state’s financial aid recipients should be able to take enough courses to graduate on time.

While this legislative session was a good one for higher education, Minnesota must continue to help its students and systems perform more efficiently and effectively.  These reforms are an important beginning.  We applaud these efforts to improve the value of higher education and help build a 21st century workforce for Minnesota. As a result students should enjoy great success in the years to come and Minnesota will continue to be a higher education leader.