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Workforce Investment is Critical for Minnesota's Future

January 14, 2009 By Tim Morin, Minnesota Private College Council Board Member

Minnesota is on the brink of becoming a state where intellectual capacity and intellectual property is created and exported around the world. That's going to be the hallmark of our success in the 21st Century.

While there is plenty to fret about regarding education, we can take heart from one sign of success: International test results released in December show that our fourth- and eighth-graders have significantly improved at math. Minnesota has gone from mediocre math performance for these age groups to closing in on top-performing nations. As researcher Bill Schmidt said, we're "sitting on the edge of world-class performance."

Along with improved performance in math, we can also be glad that the right comparisons are being made. Our state's future economic and social success depends on having a workforce with the intellectual capacity to compete not just with other states but with the world's top economies. That's why several Minnesota businesses, the State Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Private College Council helped support the analysis of our data in the international Trends in International Math and Science Study.

Unfortunately, the education outlook remains more gloomy than glowing. One in ten Minnesota ninth-graders does not finish high school. Seven in ten aren't going to end up earning a two- or four-year degree. Meanwhile, there are sizable differences in academic achievement and enrollment tied to ethnicity and family income. (For more examples, visit www.learnmoremn.org.)

We're at a juncture when these challenges matter more than ever. Speaking in mid-December, State Demographer Tom Gillaspy noted that in 2008, the first wave of Baby Boomers turned 62 - the age when Americans tend to retire from their jobs. At the same time, "almost as a perfect storm," the number of young people graduating from high school has peaked, slowing the growth of the future workforce and dampening economic growth.

The current economic crash has put new focus on the question of just what is required to ensure Minnesota builds jobs and economic growth. The key component for employers both large and small is an educated workforce.

Minnesota can no longer bank its future quality of life simply and solely as a producer of goods and materials for the world. Our state's employers recognize the importance of high quality human capital development to compete globally and create jobs in Minnesota. If we do not have an educated workforce we cannot be successful. Strong education performance of the local workforce will keep employers in Minnesota; poor education performance will drive employers away.

Facing a $5 billion deficit, our state policymakers need to put a priority on education. But from preschool to college, we can no longer afford to do everything the same way. These are unwelcome times. But they are times that will push us to find new and better ways of creating the education environment our future requires.

One area for careful evaluation is need-based aid for college students. At a time when the only growth in our student populations will come from lower-income families, we need to acknowledge that only one in three low-income Minnesotans complete college, compared to two out of three when income is not considered. Increasing targeted aid to low- and middle-income Minnesota families is the kind of strategic investment our state should consider closely.

Clearly, Minnesotans should prioritize actions that are essential to continuing and strengthening our education success. The recent good news on fourth- and eighth-grade math scores is a good place to start from as we build our competitiveness in this global economy.
 

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