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A Saudi family relaxes in a park at the Red Sea city of Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008.

Hassan Ammar, Associated Press - Ap

A bright future for higher education -- somewhere else

  • Article by: JOHN O'BRIEN
  • January 14, 2013 - 10:21 AM

Last month, I took a week of vacation to view the landscape of higher education from the other side of the world. Invited to share some American student success strategies with universities in Saudi Arabia, I came away stunned by that nation's massive investment in higher education and more worried than ever about the future of higher education in America and Minnesota.

Like many higher-education leaders, I have read the alarming headlines and have seen the menacing presentations showing that the last decade of disinvestment in higher education throughout the United States has taken its toll. In areas where we have historically led the world, we are now falling behind. We used to take pride in being No. 1 worldwide in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with postsecondary credentials; we are now ranked 16th.

While the statistics are striking, experiencing the contrast in person is even more astonishing. During my first day in Saudi Arabia, I saw firsthand the evidence of higher-education investments in excess of $15 billion dollars, not to mention the doubling of that nation's overall education budget since 2005. The recently opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was given funding to cover expenses for several years, along with an astounding initial endowment of $10 billion dollars. Last year, the kingdom opened a new university for women near Riyadh, representing an investment of $5.3 billion.

For perspective, investment in this last Saudi project -- one university -- would match the legislative funding for the entire Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system of 31 colleges and universities for nearly a decade. While one country invests billions in one project, we are gearing up for a tough discussion with the Legislature regarding funding a modest increase of $48.5 million a year for MnSCU campuses.

Coincidentally, the week I was abroad, McKinsey & Company reported on an international scale what we have been seeing in Minnesota. Its study of nine countries, including both the United States and Saudi Arabia, concludes that only 43 percent of employers believe they have the skilled entry-level employees they need. Saudi Arabia is responding with a sense of urgency and investment equal to the challenge. We, in contrast, have yet to respond.

Five decades ago, Sputnik's barely audible beep-beep-beep awakened the entire nation to the need for investment in a world-class education system to take us into the future. We can't stand idle in developing a similar sense of urgency while countries like Saudi Arabia pass us by. We need to marshal our resources and act now.

As a lifelong Minnesotan, I have taken great pride in our state's historic role as a leader in higher education. Today, Minnesota's funding of higher education is below 2002 levels, and cuts over the last 12 years have been twice as deep as the national average.

Measured against state history, we are squandering decades of past investment. Measured against international trends, we are indeed falling further and further behind.

The economic prosperity of Minnesota and its citizens is at stake. If we hope to remain competitive and continue the quality of life we enjoy today, we must reverse the trend and once again invest in higher education for all Minnesotans.

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John O'Brien is president of North Hennepin Community College.

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