As I traveled Minnesota during this first year as chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, I gained clarity about the role of our institutions in the life of this great state. I heard from community and business leaders about the importance of our graduates and about their ability to solve real-world problems. I heard stories of students whose lives have been changed by the chance to go to one of our community or technical colleges or universities. I saw the vibrant economies that they have built over generations.

I also came to understand that there is a growing -- and dangerous -- disconnect between the jobs employers are trying to fill and the skills of those looking for work. Despite high unemployment, thousands of Minnesota jobs going unfilled because candidates don't have the necessary skills.

This is a national challenge. A Georgetown University study said that 150,000 new jobs will require some postsecondary education by 2018. Additionally, retiring baby boomers will leave 620,000 vacancies by the end of the decade for employees with a postsecondary certificate or degree. Total: a staggering 770,000 jobs for well-educated Minnesotans.

So how does Minnesota achieve a larger pool of highly skilled and knowledgeable professionals?

1)Get more students ready for college. We are losing too many students from the educational pipeline. One-quarter of Minnesota students (and 50 percent of students of color) who enter high school do not finish on time, and many who do graduate are not college-ready. Minnesota's fastest-growing populations -- people of color, people of modest financial means and first-generation Minnesotans -- are some of the least prepared for higher education.

2)Keep more students in college. Of Minnesotans who do start college, many never complete a program. We must ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed in higher education. This will require us to be more intentional about advising, financial aid for part-time students and tutoring. We must do a better job of getting the right students into the right programs.

3)Graduate students with the right skills. We must teach what students need to succeed in the real world and provide real-world learning experiences through internships and apprenticeships. We must get them through their programs faster.

Work on these challenges has engaged leaders across Minnesota -- in higher education, K-12, business, government, funders and community leaders. Even though progress has been made, we must create urgency that matches the risk.

As Minnesotans, we believe that we all deserve the opportunity to create better futures. We also believe -- as we always have -- that Minnesota can advance its prosperity by delivering education that's among the best in the world. That's why I know we can meet this challenge. That's why the time is now.


The writer is chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.