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Home / Guest Commentary / Young: A call to action to improve education in Minnesota – and the U.S.
Complacency is the road to irrelevance and decline – as it is in nature. If you are not growing and adapting, you are becoming anachronistic. And who wants to become a loser by willing choice?

Young: A call to action to improve education in Minnesota – and the U.S.

Just after I finished writing my last column on the priority of getting educational expenditures right in Minnesota, I heard a presentation by David Laird at my Saint Paul Rotary Club on the same topic.

David is president of the Council of Minnesota Private Colleges and was even grimmer in his assessment of where we as a state and a county stand with respect to educational outcomes than I was prepared to hear.

Steven B. Young

Steven B. Young

His principal task is to promote the financial health of our private colleges. David is immersed in statistics about who is qualified for admission, levels of tuition, demand for higher education, quality of high school graduates, ACT and SAT scores, career paths for those with college degrees and the need for educated citizens.

His first point is that the United States is slipping for the first time in our history. We are, therefore, losing the foundations of our economic competitiveness and will lose our privileged position among the nations of the world.

For the first time in generations, our children could face poorer prospects than their parents and grandparents.

The baby boomers were the best-educated generation in American history. For example, they alone make up 50 percent of all our professionals. As they retire, those coming after them are not so well-educated. The younger generations do not have the potential to replace them, and we don’t have enough well-educated immigrants coming from other countries to replace them either.

Fifteen years ago, among the wealthy countries of the world, the United States was No. 1 in the percentage of citizens holding a two-year college degree or more. Today, we are only No. 10 in this ranking. Now we are behind Canada, Japan, Korea, Norway, Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, Spain and France. We are, however, on a par with Australia.

Germany, Japan, Greece and Ireland have 90 percent graduation rates from high school. We are at 76 percent.

In one standard test of student proficiency, the United States now ranks only 25th in math, 15th in reading, and 21st in science. While the United States has held steady in achievement, other societies have moved ahead.

In 2004, both China and India produced 10 times more degrees in the natural sciences than the United States. In 1975, we were first in the world in training such specialists; by 2005 we were only 20th. Japan and Korea spend a larger proportion of their GDP on research and development than the United States does.

China has the largest educational system in the world, and in the next 10 years will build 800 new colleges and universities. Next year it will double the money it spends on research and development.

By spending money wisely, little Singapore is becoming a world leader in micro-biotechnology and related research areas.

According to the ACT test scores, only 32 percent of Minnesota high school graduates are ready for college. Of those young Minnesotans now starting the ninth grade, only 25 percent will earn a college degree within 10 years.

At present, some 37 percent of Minnesotans hold a bachelor’s or higher degree. In the near future, an advanced economy will need 60 percent of its work force with such credentials.

Bill Gates has said that we are in an educational crisis caused by “weak systems run by old beliefs and bad habits.”

In 1983, the “Nation at Risk” report warned that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.”

Today, 26 years later, nothing has been done to change this prospect.

My colleague Dane Smith of Growth & Justice has called for action. His organization – usually more overtly aligned with “progressive” government policies than I am – wants Minnesota to increase by 50 percent the number of young people with some level of post-secondary education.

Dane’s research shows that a person who earns a higher education credential will realize over their lifetime an economic value of $1 million in increased earnings and tax revenues and reduced welfare and intervention costs when compared with a person with only a high school degree.

I agree with Dane that complacency is the road to irrelevance and decline – as it is in nature. If you are not growing and adapting, you are becoming anachronistic. And who wants to become a loser by willing choice?

We as a state and a nation must act now.

Steven B. Young is executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network advocating ethical principles for business and government. He was dean of Hamline Law School and now teaches ethics at the Carlson School of Management. He ran for the Republican Party nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1996. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected]

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