Two recent commentaries (“College is not always the answer,” by Howard Root, the retired CEO of Vascular Solutions Inc., in the July 10 Business Forum, and “Postsecondary education for non-dummies,” by Katherine Kersten in the July 16 Opinion Exchange section) applaud the value of technical certificates and two-year associate’s degrees. I agree — these programs are absolutely the right choice for many Minnesota high school graduates. Considering the growing demand for citizens with technical training and skills, it is more important than ever that we help students understand the value of programs such as those offered at our technical and community colleges.
A tremendous amount of effort is being made in our state to help our community and technical colleges and their students be successful. There is an entire system devoted to two-year degrees and certificates, with a campus in every corner of the state. Each budget cycle, Gov. Mark Dayton and our Legislature have provided funding to ease tuition costs and boost need-based aid. Customized training efforts provide workers with the skills they need for local companies, and apprenticeships and internships help students get a head start. This is an $850 million annual taxpayer effort that strives to meet the needs of our businesses and the aspirations of many of our citizens.
While I agree with the assertion made in the two commentaries that many students enrolled in a four-year program could be better suited to or more successful in a certificate or two-year program, the opposite is also true: Many students in two-year programs would be successful in bachelor’s or graduate degree programs. It is imperative that those students who want to be a registered nurse or a teacher or to pursue any number of professions that require a four-year degree be supported in their endeavors. Barriers such as cost and quality of preparation must be addressed. Study after study shows that the higher the level of education and training, the less likely a person is to be unemployed and their lifetime earnings will be higher. Furthermore, we will stunt our economy if we don’t have prepared workers at all of these levels. Education, training and experience matter to employers. Our rapidly changing economy demands many combinations of these ingredients.
As our state becomes more racially diverse, we must also be careful what messages we give to students. While Minnesota has the second-highest percentage of its population with an associate’s degree or higher, there is a 23 percent gap in educational attainment between white students and students of color. Currently, students of color are more likely to attend a two-year college and more likely to drop out without attaining any certificate or degree. At the same time, the percentage of Minnesotans represented by people of color is expected to almost double from 2005 to 2035. True equity means we need more students of color and lower-income students to complete degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Unless we are successful in encouraging and supporting a much greater number of people of color to complete postsecondary education and training at every degree level, the socioeconomic stratification of our state will deepen and our future workforce needs will go unmet.
In 2015, the Legislature set a target that 70 percent of Minnesota adults ages 25 to 44, across all racial and ethnic groups, will have attained a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2025. Meeting this goal depends on closing our attainment gaps. Students who fail to complete their postsecondary education not only lack the skills to get a good job, they also walk away with the burden of student debt and, oftentimes, depleted student aid. On this front, it is just as important to help a student successfully complete college as it is to help them start.
Finally, it is important to remember that “college” means all forms of postsecondary education — certificates, two- and four-year degrees, and graduate degrees. Minnesota has a vibrant and extensive network of postsecondary options; let’s remain focused on helping students pursue the education that best fits their needs and aspirations and ensuring that their chosen path is affordable. Just as Minnesota needs electricians and machinists, we also need doctors and engineers. On this, we can all agree.
Larry Pogemiller is commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.