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Higher-ed bill one step in right direction

Maureen Ramirez//June 10, 2015//

Higher-ed bill one step in right direction

Maureen Ramirez//June 10, 2015//

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Maureen Ramirez
Maureen Ramirez

The Lumina Foundation, a highly regarded national organization that pushes for increasing higher education attainment in the United States, recently issued a 50-state report that praises Minnesota for gradual progress in recent years and for our above-average percentage of adults who obtain postsecondary degrees and credentials.

Lumina’s method of measurement puts Minnesota at 48 percent of 2.9 million working adults with a two-year or four-year degree, well above the national average of 40 percent. Lumina has set a goal of 60 percent for the nation by 2025, but most experts agree Minnesota’s goal must be higher, around 70 or 75 percent, because of a “smarter” economy that demands more skills and training. And here’s where Lumina found fault with Minnesota.

“Unfortunately, Minnesota is one of the 19 states that have not yet set or begun to develop a statewide goal to increase postsecondary attainment,” the report states.

Lumina can now remove us from the list of goal-less states. Without much fanfare in the recently adjourned 2015 legislative session, we joined the pack of 32 states with a specific higher-ed attainment goal written into state law.

That goal and other new policies in the Higher Education funding bill, already signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, represent a new direction for Minnesota, and it starts with a unified vision of a statewide goal for postsecondary attainment. The policy specifically calls for the share of Minnesota residents between the ages of 25 and 44 who hold a postsecondary degree or certificate to be increased to at least 70 percent by 2025.

The Office of Higher Education will collaborate with the state demographer’s office to establish a baseline and a methodology for the goal, in a report due by Oct. 15. The report will include data that allows for disaggregation by race and ethnicity. That’s a crucially important dimension in a state with some of the larger racial gaps for educational attainment in the nation.

Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee Chair Terri Bonoff, a leading proponent of a statewide goal and a prime mover behind a North Star Summit on workforce priorities last December, said the goal and other key provisions in the 2015 higher education bill amount to a “sea change” for Minnesota.

Those key provisions include performance funding, remediation reform, a pilot program providing technical college at no cost for eligible students, policy changes and increased funding for expanding “earn while you learn” apprenticeship programs, and expansion of eligibility for postsecondary and concurrent enrollment options that will put more kids on track to higher-ed completion in high school.

The 2015 session began with an attention-getting bang, with a bold bill for free community college, modeled on Tennessee’s recent example. That proposal ran into objections over total cost and questions about whether it would serve high-need students and align with workforce demand. The final higher-ed bill does launch a pilot program to offer free technical college for qualifying students in qualifying programs. Students must meet income guidelines, enrollment guidelines, and must enter programs classified as “high demand” by the Department of Employment and Economic Development. The pilot program is created for two years, beginning with the 2016-2017 school year.

The Higher Education legislation also directs Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system trustees to implement new baccalaureate degree “pathways” for the MnSCU system, and to create plans to increase program completion at each state college and university.

As a component of this new demand for completion performance, remediation is addressed through language that suggests, but doesn’t require, that colleges and universities design co-requisite courses in place of traditional remediation. This provision was championed by Students for Education Reform, and their “Reimagine Remediation” campaign. The legislation requests that the University of Minnesota develop similar comprehensive plans for college completion, and that both systems present reports on their plans to the higher education committees in January 2016.

Meanwhile, improved alignment continues to occur at the systems level, not just at the Legislature.   Just last month, leaders from Minneapolis Community and Technical College and Augsburg College announced a guaranteed transfer program known as the “Auggie Plan” that streamlines the process for undergraduate students who earn an Associate of Arts degree (60 credits) from MCTC. It follows the best practice of planning “stackable credentials” pathways for students, offering flexibility. While many private and public colleges offer transfer plans, this program is unique in its expansive offering of guaranteed admission to 60 majors in the liberal arts.

The joint agreement includes access to both MCTC and Augsburg advisers for all four years for students, allowing them to develop relationships and to seek guidance across both campuses during their education.

The 2015 Legislature’s higher education package in many ways reflects an overwhelming consensus that attainment must be a collaborative aspiration, one that includes every sector of society and becomes a lifelong enterprise, no longer just a concern for college officials and young people in their late teens and early 20s.

The Lumina Foundation’s report, now in need of some revision for the Minnesota section, makes the point that we need everybody on board:

“Many groups and individuals must work together to increase attainment,” the report says.”The imperative for Minnesota to increase attainment is clear and many educators, policymakers, employers and community leaders are stepping up to take action.”

Maureen Ramirez is policy and research director for Growth & Justice and is substituting this month for regular columnist Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice.

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