"Pick up the pace," University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler advised his faculty as he was inaugurated one week ago today.
"The biggest risk we face is the risk of business as usual," stressed MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone two days earlier as he laid out a proposed strategic framework for his system's 31 colleges and universities.
It's a time of ferment for higher education in Minnesota. New leaders are taking charge of the state's two public systems as rapid economic and demographic changes demand responses from the state's colleges and universities.
Last week also brought a forum in Minneapolis that posed a timely question for educators and policymakers: How can Minnesota's colleges and universities meet a swelling demand for lifelong learning, even as they continue to prepare young adults to enter the workforce?
That question was the focus of "Breakpoint Minnesota: Employers and Higher Education," a gathering of higher-education thinkers sponsored by the Citizens League, the Bush Foundation and the Shank Institute. The forum highlighted these research findings:
• Seventy-three percent of Minnesota's 2030 workforce is already working today. Far fewer of these people now possess the skills that the 2030 labor market will demand.
• By 2018, an estimated 70 percent of Minnesota jobs will require some postsecondary training, up only slightly from 68 percent in 2008 but well ahead of most other states. Yet only 33 percent of the state's jobs will require a four-year degree or more. Demand for workers with "some college" or a two-year degree will run almost as high as for those with bachelor's or graduate degrees.
• The average age of students in the MnSCU system's two-year colleges climbed past 25 more than a decade ago, and is projected to keep climbing as jobs require retraining and employers demand a richer mix of skills.
Both public and private colleges in Minnesota already have been modifying their curriculums and calendars to accommodate students still called "nontraditional."
But the persistence of that label betrays an abiding orientation at most colleges toward 18- to 22-year-olds. So does the proliferation of for-profit colleges that fill a gap by catering to adult learners -- but can lack the accountability that Minnesotans expect from higher education.
Public higher education can expect increasing pressure to better accommodate older learners. And changes great and small will be needed to meet the demand. In a season for new ideas, we hope these are explored:
• Extend financial aid to part-time, working students. For years, MnSCU officials have told the Legislature that the State Grant Program's formula should be modified to better accommodate older, working students compelled to enroll part time.
The formula disqualifies all but the poorest such students, closing doors to many of the Minnesotans who most need what a college degree can offer and slowing the academic progress of others. Legislators should heed this plea. So should philanthropists and the business community.
• Employers want more evidence that job candidates possess specific skills, and more opportunity to bolster particular skills within their existing workforces. That includes such hard-to-measure abilities as critical thinking, initiative and teamwork.
Sean Kershaw of the Citizens League said employers' calls could lead to a new array of higher-ed credentials to better describe -- and hold schools accountable for -- the skills a graduate has attained.
• Make smarter use of online learning. Rosenstone was onto something when he allowed that his system could make better use of the Internet as a pedagogic tool. That's especially true for teaching place-bound, time-constrained adult learners.
Their "face time" with faculty should emphasize one-on-one and small-group interaction. Many large-group lectures can be offered online -- and could be shared across institutional or even system lines, thereby eliminating costly duplication.
The opportunity for enhanced learning -- not cost -- should drive such changes. But if better learning for all ages can cost less too, more's the better.