Jennifer Godinez, Matt Kane: Less college? First, define your terms

  • August 24, 2010 - 6:49 PM

In "Maybe fewer people should go to college'' (Aug. 15), Mitch Pearlstein laid out some key challenges in higher education, especially the problems with soaring college costs and debt, and the inordinate time many students are taking to acquire a four-year degree nowadays.

And it was courageous of Pearlstein to suggest that some current university students from affluent families might not really be motivated or qualified for the demands of traditional four-year colleges.

Unfortunately, the headline may have implied to many readers that fewer students overall should obtain some form of post-secondary education. That would be about as wrong a signal as one can send on this subject. And it's especially discouraging to the aspirations of our students of color, who need to dramatically improve their higher-education completion rates.

Confusion about what we mean by "college'' is at the core of the issue.

The simple truth is that success for all in today's society requires developing skills and knowledge beyond our K-12 systems, and for many that amounts to one- or two-year courses of study that lead to certifications or other credentials. Minnesota absolutely must have as many people as possible with those higher order skills if we are to sustain economic growth and build healthy and fair communities.

In these times of deep disagreement on the direction for our state, there is near unanimity that we need a more highly educated workforce. This goal is strongly endorsed by Minnesota's top business, non-profit and governmental leaders, and has long been shared by all political parties and ideologies.

Countless research projects show our economy in the near future needs more advanced degrees and attainment. Studies also invariably show we simply won't get that workforce unless we really focus on the African-American, Latino, Asian, and American Indian populations that comprise the fastest-growing part of our population.

Rather than focus on who should not go to college, we really need to figure out what works toward higher success rates for Minnesotans of color. All or most of our minority students should be encouraged to pursue a college education.

A recent report by The Education Trust, a national advocacy group focused on student achievement, identified some remarkable success rates for students of color at Old Dominion University (in Virginia), Florida International University and the University of California-Riverside.

At UCal-Riverside, for instance, after many years of persistent focus on retention, Latinos have a 63 percent on-time graduation rate and African-American students boast a 67 percent rate. The success rate for whites is actually slightly lower, at 62 percent, and near the national average of 60 percent for whites -- an average that also needs to rise.

In Minnesota, we need to figure out how to remove the barriers that impede enrollment and attainment for students of color, and we need to do it soon.

In flagging "college readiness" as a top goal of his Race to the Top initiative, President Obama has emphasized three priorities that Pearlstein also highlighted -- redesigning federal financial aid in order to make college more affordable, setting strong expectations for timely completion from higher-ed institutions, and conferring credentials that have real value in rebuilding our economy.

We'll all do better when we all do better. Admired voices across the spectrum -- from Paul Wellstone to Bill Gates to George W. Bush -- have agreed that we can't do better if we leave kids behind and if fewer and fewer go to "college.''

Jennifer Godinez is associate director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership and Matt Kane is policy and research director for Growth & Justice.

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