Minnesota is tied with North Dakota for the third-highest high school graduation rate in the country in the latest stats compiled by the Alliance for Excellent Education, dating from 2008-09. That year's Minnesota high school graduates represented 87.4 percent of freshmen four years earlier. Only Wisconsin and Vermont scored better.

If cross-border competition isn't enough to inspire Minnesota students, parents, educators and policy-makers to push harder toward diplomas, this might: By the Alliance's calculations, state and local governments would net $2.9 million more in tax revenues each year if Minnesota's graduation rate matched Wisconsin's 90 percent.

Strategies to boost high school and college completion rates have been advanced from a number of quarters in recent years. But "more education" hasn't caught on as a rallying cry among the "no new taxes" crowd, though the tax dividend that higher graduation rates produces clearly would help keep overall tax rates down. To be sure, education is costly. But it produces a solid payoff in the long term. That formula is the essence of Minnesota's 20th century success story.

As for the 21st century: In an interview last week, MnSCU Chancellor Steve Rosenstone recited some 21st century higher education funding stats that ought to trouble Minnesotans: Between 1999 and 2010, U.S. states cut higher education spending by an average of 19 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. Minnesota's cut was 40 percent. Since 2010, only nine states have cut higher education appropriations more deeply on a percentage basis than Minnesota did.  

Those cuts translate to higher tuition, and that in turn reduces college completion rates. "This is not a recipe for being successful in the world economy," Rosenstone said. Neither is it a pathway toward paying for the state and local government services an aging society is going to need.