Heard about the tuition freeze next year at Minnesota public colleges and universities? If you haven’t, you will. Count on Gov. Mark Dayton and every reelection-seeking DFLer — and a few Republicans too — to brag about that feature of the 2014-15 state budget.

Campaign attention to higher education is way overdue. But I can’t muster a cheer for state politicians who think it’s their business to set tuition and run colleges. Those are jobs better left to governing boards.

A tuition freeze is a simplistic response to the higher-ed hurt that has been afflicting Minnesotans. You’ve surely heard that litany of woe: Rising student debt, up to $31,497 per graduate in Minnesota’s Class of 2012. (That’s fourth-highest in the nation.) Too many students quitting before obtaining degrees. Persistently high unemployment among recent grads. And chronic complaints from employers that they can’t find enough workers with the skills they need — despite an 11 percent jobless cohort among the state’s 16- to 24-year-olds and the seventh-highest bachelor’s degree attainment in the nation.

It’s nice to hear from a politician who thinks the state ought to do something to remedy all of those ills, not just clamp down on tuition. That’s why I welcomed a visit from state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, chair of the Senate’s higher education funding committee and the godmother of the new PIPELINE Project.

PIPELINE is an acronym for “Private Investment, Public Education Labor Industry Experience.” That’s the initiative’s long-winded name because an otherwise fitting label — apprenticeships — was deemed too much associated with long-established beginners’ programs in the construction trades.

With no disrespect to those fine occupations, PIPELINE isn’t about carpentry or plumbing. It’s about a new way for students to get a college degree with little or no debt and an assurance of a good job thereafter, and for employers to get and keep the workers they need.

If you’re a big thinker — and Bonoff is — it’s also about remaking Minnesota higher education and the way it is funded. But that’s still a twinkle in Madame Chair’s eye. PIPELINE has to start flowing first.

The idea is borrowed from Germany, via the series of policy exchanges that have been sponsored in recent years by the German government through the University of Minnesota’s Center for German and European Studies. It also arrived via Swiss-owned Bühler Co., which hires six new student-employees per year at its manufacturing facility in Bonoff’s district.

About two-thirds of German late teens enroll in what that country calls “dual education.” (It seems they too avoid the word “apprenticeship.”) What’s “dual?” Enrollees are both students and part-time employees. Employers are both bosses and tuition payers. Industry groups and labor unions are also educational standard-setters, determining what competencies a learner should acquire to earn a degree and move to full-time employment.

That last step has started in Minnesota. Bonoff’s 2014 legislation directed the state Department of Labor and Industry to convene “industry councils” in four high-demand fields — information technology, health care services, advanced manufacturing and agriculture. Each council contains representatives of employers, employees and educators. Their assignment is to describe the skills and abilities to be acquired via apprenticeships, er, PIPELINE programs, in selected occupations, and deliver them to the Legislature by January 2015.

Bonoff’s intention then is to set in law a description of what constitutes a PIPELINE arrangement between enrollees and employers, leading to both a degree and a job. And to figure out how to pay for it.

Students who aren’t low-income might still pay some tuition costs. State money will surely be involved. With higher education in Minnesota, it always is. State Grant Program money flows to low-income students at all institutions, public and private. State Workforce Center money might play a role, Bonoff hints.

But participating employers can expect to pay a goodly share of the tuition tab for their PIPELINE enrollees. In return, they’ll get workers trained to their specifications and connected to their firms for the long term. Bonoff isn’t talking about contracts that bind recent grads to one employer. In Germany, she says, legal fetters aren’t necessary. Young workers who have a good experience as “dual education” apprentices don’t fly away.

How many Minnesota employers are itching to pay their employees’ tuition bills? More than you might think, says Amy Walstein of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

“The volume is increasing from our members about workforce concerns, particularly in the industries identified in Sen. Bonoff’s bill. They’re having difficulty finding workers with the skill sets they need,” Walstein said. The employers who are expressing interest in the PIPELINE program are already spending heavily on employee recruitment and training. “This is a different way to spend recruitment money,” she said.

How many higher educators in Minnesota are eager to design their curricula to meet industry-determined competency standards? Or to count more on-the-job learning toward degree completion requirements? Again, more than you might think, says Mary Rothchild, senior system director for workforce development at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

“Working with employers is not new” for MnSCU, Rothchild said. “But we always seek new ways to do it. We absolutely see it as higher education’s role to be very tightly aligned to employers’ needs in the state of Minnesota.”

Faculties won’t cotton to college credit being awarded by a third party for an experience that they don’t have an opportunity to assess. But PIPELINE is being designed with faculty input. At least in concept, both employers and educators will decide and assess what students do.

Getting the employer/employee collaboration right will be one of the keys to making PIPELINE work. So will patience and persistence. Germany has been doing this for generations. Apprenticeship-style higher education, putting students from their early teens forward on fixed pathways set by schools, businesses and labor unions, is part of the German culture.

Minnesota’s higher-education culture has been more about individual freedom. Students, study what you like. Students and families, you’re largely on your own to pay for it. Educators, design your courses as you see fit. Employers, hire whomever you can find — and grouse all you like that your state tax dollars aren’t providing the workforce you need.

That culture may have served Minnesota adequately in the 20th century. Its limitations have become evident in the 21st. High student debt loads are hobbling young lives and the economy. Baby boomer retirements are threatening to turn today’s labor supply pinch into a stranglehold. Money is too scarce, and too mobile, for Minnesota to afford a yawning skills gap between what college grads know and what employers want them to know.

Easing this state’s higher-ed hurt may ultimately require new money and new institutions. But it needs to start with new thinking. Election campaigns are fine opportunities to peddle new ideas. This year, PIPELINE could be one of them.


Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.