Itasca task force calls for alliance of educators, employers.
Employers and higher educators in Minnesota ought to get a lot cozier. That's not just Editorial Board advice. It's the conclusion of a new report fashioned by some of the state's leading business and higher-ed CEOs -- the people in a position to make deeper connections happen.
A task force of the Itasca Project, the state's business-led civic alliance, has taken notice of troubling trend lines for Minnesota higher education and has set out to reverse them. The task force's new report, "Higher Education Partnerships for Prosperity," is a blueprint for collective action by entities that are more dependent on one another than they've shown in recent years.
The plan's details may be less significant than the fact that it exists at all. Business voices have been too quiet for the past decade as the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system came in for deep cuts in state financial support. Minnesota went from above-average higher-education support among the 50 states in 2003 to a below-average position today -- a 35 percent per-student drop. Only three other states -- Georgia, Michigan and Ohio -- made deeper cuts on a percentage basis during that period.
The task force report acknowledges those cuts and the tuition increases that have been the result. Yet it stops short of clearly calling for an end to reductions in state support. Instead, it gingerly says that "the funding of our students and institutions must be brought to a solid and sustainable path."
Task force chair Greg Page, chairman and CEO of Cargill, explained that the panel concluded that "going to funding would detract from the other messages we're trying to get across." To the contrary: It would have strengthened the report's message that securing a highly educated workforce must be a top state policy priority.
That said, there's a lot to like in this report and in Page's assurance that the task force means to turn its words into action. It identifies four key ways in which businesses and higher education can do a better job of working together for their mutual benefit:
• Shaping higher education curricula to better meet employers' needs. MnSCU has already embarked on a project to do just that. It has conducted a series of employer-educator listening sessions throughout the state this spring and summer. Those conversations need to become routine.
• Cocreating a research and innovation "ecosystem." The University of Minnesota has worked hard in recent years to speed the commercialization of its research discoveries. The task force praised that work but said the connection between business and academic R&D ought to be closer still. University President Eric Kaler will head a new panel aimed at making it so.
• Increasing cross-system efficiency in higher education. Business advisers can show MnSCU and the University of Minnesota how consolidation of back-office operations and selected joint programming can be cost-effective, the report says.
• Graduating more students. This is the most important item on Itasca's to-do list, and the most challenging. It puts more business heft into a call several years ago by the progressive think tank Growth & Justice for a 50 percent boost in the share of Minnesota young adults who have attained a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2020.
But Itasca missed an opportunity by not explicitly endorsing a numeric graduation goal. The report comments that "supporting students to increase graduation rates is largely an effort that happens inside educational institutions."
True enough, but businesses can help. They can step up communication with students and parents about what jobs require. They can provide mentors, internships and scholarships. And they can end their silence at the Legislature when higher education goes on the budget chopping block.
The report articulates an appealing vision. Minnesota can become the state with "the nation's foremost alliance of educators and employers." That's a vision in keeping with this state's history and traditions, responsive to today's challenges and worthy of its aspirations. We hope it catches on.
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