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Q: You and former state demographer Tom Gillaspy have been sounding an alarm about the racial achievement gap. How big a threat is that to prosperity?
A: It’s big. The high school graduation rate for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in this state is miserable, and that population is growing. We’ve been talking about it for eight or 10 years, and people’s mouths still drop open when they see the data.
This is an extremely hard nut to crack. Early childhood education is part of the trick to doing it. But the disturbing thing to me is that some people think if we just do early education, that solves the problem. It doesn’t. Assume it works perfectly starting this year, and you still have 15 more years of people who don’t graduate from high school at an appropriate level. This has already gone on for 10 years, so you have a 25-year cohort of people who don’t have sufficient credentials to participate in the economy at a healthy level.
Q: What ought to be done about that?
A: One of the challenges we have in the next decade or more is intervening with that group and trying to get them to a level at which they can participate in the global economy. We can’t waste the talents that these people have. That would be stupid from an economic perspective, and it also risks real rifts in the social structure. If you have more “have-nots” and the income level of the “haves” increases, that’s not a situation that leads to social stability.
We’ve got to be much more aggressive in Adult Basic Education. We have to get people who haven’t graduated from high school a credential that gives them access to the postsecondary system. Just getting a GED [general educational development certificate, an alternative credential for those who don’t complete high school] doesn’t help you very much. You have to go on to a technical school or community college, at least, to be able to support yourself.
Q: Minnesota has some of the highest two-year college tuition rates in the country. Is that an impediment to future workforce productivity?
A: Economists believe in markets. They believe that prices affect behavior. One of the ways to have more workers is to educate them here rather than someplace else.
If you have high prices for postsecondary education, not as many people will enroll as would if prices were lower. Given that we’re going into a period in which trained workers are going to be the scarce resource, it seems that high tuition sets us up for less growth than we’d have if tuition were lower.
But access isn’t all that matters with higher education. Graduate-level research will be another set of keys as we look to the future. We have to invest in the research needed to keep us on the cutting edge. That’s a challenge as well.
Q: Some economists see growing income inequality as a threat to prosperity. Is that a problem here?
A: Income inequality is widening here as it is everywhere. I’m less worried about that than I am if you have a gap opening between the lower class and the middle class, which we’ve started to see. We’ve never had a large impoverished population in Minnesota. That’s a threat. To the extent that the social safety net doesn’t keep pace with the rest of society, and you don’t have the skill set that’s needed to compete, you’re out of luck, and so is this state.
Q: Do you still feel good about Minnesota?
A: Yeah, I actually do. I have a lot of confidence that we’ll figure this out. This state still has a great commitment to education and workforce development. We’ll figure out how to use those tools to keep our workforce more productive than the rest of the country. As long as we don’t give up on education, we’ll continue to be successful.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.