The juxtaposition at the State Capitol around midday last Tuesday was striking. Two groups of teenagers buzzed through the corridors, looking for legislators to buttonhole. ¶ The groups were almost indistinguishable. They sounded alike, dressed alike, and appeared equally intent on their missions. ¶ But at 12:30 p.m., they separated. The 300 wearing badges from Burnsville High School mostly stayed indoors. The 1,000 brought to the Capitol by the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network moved to the front steps and began chanting: "One, two, three, four; we don't want to mop the floor; five, six, seven, eight; we just want to graduate." ¶ "These are supposedly the achievement-gap kids," said Jennifer Godinez of the Minnesota College Access Network as she listened to students describing dreams of becoming doctors, teachers and engineers. "Who says they don't want to go college?" ¶ To that question, I would add a few others: Why should choices made by their parents, not by them, consign some Minnesota high-school kids to shiver in the cold to plead for educational opportunities that most of their classmates can take for granted? ¶ And why weren't the state's leading employers, who are well aware of the looming shortage of skilled workers, standing alongside these youngsters? Why weren't they there to attest to Minnesota's need for all the brainpower it can get? ¶ It's the fourth straight year for such questions. For the fourth time, immigrant students have come to the Capitol to beg for passage of the Dream Act.

The Dream Act would create a new way to qualify for resident tuition rates at a state-supported college or university. It would say that if a student attends a Minnesota high school for at least three years, achieves an academically qualifying record and graduates, he or she is eligible for such tuition rates -- regardless of the immigration status of his or her parents. These students would be spared nonresident rates that can be more than twice as high.

Eleven other states have made that choice already. If it were only up to the Legislature, Minnesota likely would be among them by now.

But Gov. Tim Pawlenty insists on defining the Dream Act in terms of immigration policy, not workforce development. His veto threats have stopped each attempt to pass it.

This session, the bill's DFL sponsors aren't saying whether they will try again. They undoubtedly recall how some GOP candidates used the Dream Act to make DFLers sound soft on illegal immigration in the 2006 campaign. They probably aren't eager to hand the opposition more fuel for that kind of fire.

But the kids on the Capitol steps can't put their lives on hold, waiting for a more-opportune political moment. And Minnesota's economy can't wait much longer to avoid the chill of too-few graduates from four-year colleges and universities.

The Minnesota Private College Research Foundation warns about what's coming: Unless current college-enrollment patterns change, the state will see an 11 percent drop in four-year college graduates by 2017. By the middle of the next decade, there won't be enough new grads per year to fill the jobs left vacant by retirements, let alone new jobs that require four-year degrees.

With college grads in short supply, some companies will leave Minnesota. Some that might have expanded here will grow elsewhere. And some place-bound companies won't achieve their full potential. As their vitality diminishes, so will Minnesota's.

That's why it's not good enough to only prop open the doors of two-year institutions -- though that move last session was a positive one. The 2007 Legislature directed six two-year colleges to eliminate nonresident tuition and charge a flat rate to all comers. That idea has since expanded to 19 two-year colleges and three state universities.

But until every state university and the University of Minnesota goes on the list of "dream schools," the state's implicit message to immigrant kids is: "We'll give you resident-like access to our easy-entry institutions. But you're not fully welcome at our most-competitive schools."

As Tuesday's rally on the Capitol steps progressed, a few students wearing Burnsville High School badges unobtrusively joined the larger group. One Burnsville senior, Hamdi Jama, quietly grabbed a sign, signaling that she had become more than an observer. She doesn't need the Dream Act to go to college next year, she explained. But she wanted to stand with those who do. "Everyone should have a chance."

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at