This is a higher-ed state. Let's keep it that way.

  • Article by: TERRI BONOFF
  • Updated: February 6, 2013 - 8:29 PM

We must lower the debt burden but give students the advanced training they need -- and that our economy requires.

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Students walked pass Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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We have a complicated story to tell when it comes to higher education in Minnesota, but it appears to be no different than the one being told across the nation, as recently highlighted by Arthur C. Brooks ("It's time for a $10,000 college degree," Feb. 4). We have some shining facts and some troubling implications. We certainly have much to be proud of in this state. Our story is unique and worth exploring.

Minnesotans have always understood the importance of higher education. We rank second in the nation in those ages 25 to 34 who have an associate degree or higher. This may be one reason why our economy has been resilient in the face of economic adversity. Since the recent recession, our unemployment rate consistently has been 2 percentage points lower than the national average, though we remain concerned about the many young people who are underemployed or unemployed.

The academic institutions in Minnesota are state-of-the-art and world-renowned. The University of Minnesota is a world leader in research and educates not only the best and brightest in Minnesota, but also students from across the globe. In addition, the university has an economic impact of $8.6 billion a year on our economy.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is also a significant contributor to the success of our state and its economy. MnSCU serves more than 430,000 students annually, offering an array of programs from which a student can obtain a certificate, bachelor's degree or graduate degree.

Minnesota has a great partnership with private academic institutions, which continue to attract and produce a great number who contribute to the health and strength of our economy and community. It is essential to our state's vitality that we continue on this path. We must wisely invest taxpayer dollars to strengthen our outcomes and stop the pattern of disinvestment in higher education that has developed over the last 10 years.

Though there is much to praise within our state's higher-education institutions, the cost of going to these institutions is clearly on an unsustainable path. Over the last 10 years, we have seen the rise of tuition nearly double across the board. Institutions fairly blame the state's disinvestment, but they must also take responsibility for responses that placed a heavy burden on students and their families.

College debt recently surpassed credit-card debt. Students and families have been willing to shoulder this financial burden in the hope of a better future. But this substantial debt load has a ripple effect on the performance of our economy, limiting our young people from being able to buy a car or put a down payment on a home. Our economic recovery is threatened by this anomaly. Traditionally, young adults are significant contributors in growing many economic sectors. Unfortunately, those who took the plunge and went to college have amassed a debt load of $29,793 on average in Minnesota.

In addition, some students amassed substantial debt but left before graduating. MnSCU's graduation rate hovers just above 50 percent. (A significant number of students transfer, and may graduate outside of the MnSCU system.) The University of Minnesota's four-year and six-year graduation rates, respectively, are 54 percent and 70 percent. How are those who have not even graduated going to have the earning power to pay this debt back without having the degree that will help them find a job?

We must declare this situation a crisis and act accordingly. The future of our children, their potential families and our economic strength depends on our ability to transform this careening imbalance of student debt, on the one hand, and unacceptable completion rates, on the other, from spinning out of control. We must take action to rescue our young adults from the precipice with thoughtful, measured intervention.

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed the first significant investment in higher education in more than a decade. We in the Legislature have the responsibility to partner with the governor to make sure our dollars are invested in a way that reduces student debt, brings relevant postsecondary completion to the greatest number of students and provides our educational institutions with a clear message about what we value.

As chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, I am committed to pursuing policies that ensure every Minnesotan has a postsecondary degree that is relevant and allows them to achieve their full potential. We already know that 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require postsecondary training by 2018.

It is critically important to strategically invest in higher education and its students to not only help us meet this demand, but also to build a 21st-century workforce that enables Minnesota to be a world leader. If our current structure is as unsustainable as Brooks declares -- and we agree -- what is the evolutionary path for change?

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Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.

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