How can Minnesota meet its looming need for a larger college-educated workforce? One opportunity leaps out of statistics from the state Office of Higher Education: Only about half of the students who enroll in Minnesota State's two- and four-year colleges graduate within, respectively, three or six years. Fewer than three of four freshmen at the University of Minnesota and the state's private four-year colleges obtain bachelor's degrees in six years.
And college completion rates among students of color — many of whom come from low-income families — lag those of white students by upward of 20 percentage points. People of color comprise the fastest-growing share of the state's young-adult population.
Clearly, Minnesota could use a serious push to improve college completion rates, particularly among low-income students. That's why we're cheering word that a major grant has been jointly received by four Twin Cities-based nonprofits that work in various ways to achieve that goal. The grant will not only enlarge their efforts, but also encourage their collaboration in finding the best formula for seeing students through to commencement.
NorthStar Education Finance, a nonprofit student loan administrator based in St. Paul, has committed $6.5 million over four years to College Possible, Wallin Education Partners, Page Education Foundation and Christo Rey Jesuit High School. That's sufficient to provide Wallin-administered scholarships for 60 additional students each year — 20 for College Possible participants in high schools not now served by Wallin, 20 for Page scholars and 20 for Christo Rey students. That will mean a 42 percent increase in the number of students who receive one of Wallin's $4,000-per-year scholarships in only the first year.
That growth is significant. But the larger gain from this combination may come from NorthStar's push for more coordination among the four programs, particularly among students already enrolled in college.
College Possible, Wallin and Page all provide some support services for students while in college, and each is producing measurable success, with Wallin scoring an impressive 92 percent college completion rate among its students last year. The challenge is to bring all the students in these programs up to that level through combined, cost-efficient efforts, even as the programs grow to serve a larger population.
Minnesotans who believe in the power of education to improve both individual lives and their state's shared life should be heartened by this work. In this season of giving, some should be inspired to expand the effort. It has plenty of room to grow. Wallin Partners board chair Stephen R. Lewis Jr., the former president of Carleton College, said Wallin gets applications from three times more qualified students than it can fund.
Lewis envisions a day in the not-distant future when Minnesota sees 1,000 more low-income students of color graduating from a four-year college each year than do today. When that day comes, Minnesota's workforce worries will ease, and the state will be changed for the better.