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MN2020 Journal: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

October 02, 2009 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
 

A college education's value is greater than the sum of its parts. All the economic rationalism in the world with its tight Dickensian profit calculations, misses college's life enrichment. Recent public debate, challenging a college education's return-on-investment value, seeks to replace richness with simple riches. If that happens, Minnesota is the poorer for it.

In recent weeks, numerous media organizations have run pieces confronting or at least contemplating the "college education as a golden ticket to success" thesis. Is, they all ask, a college education's return worth the investment?

That would be the $64,000 question.

Concurrently, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released its annual Soul of the Community survey. It asks "what attaches people to their communities?" and examines emotional factors connecting residents to place. Two Minnesota cities, Duluth and St Paul, were included in the study conducted by the Gallup Poll.

Unsurprisingly, we like it here. As a St Paul resident, I know that our nightlife is, well, lame but clubbing hasn't occupied my evenings since Soul Asylum was playing First Avenue's Main Room, the first time around. Consequently, quality of life intangibles are, for me, a much bigger deal.

Knight Foundation researchers are deeply interested in the relationship between connectedness and prosperity.  They write, "two years of results have found a significant relationship between people's passion and loyalty for their community and local economic growth. Researchers will examine this connection further in 2010."

On a sobering note, 38 percent of area college students declared that they would leave Minnesota if they could. This finding would suggest that there's something behind all those college return on investment stories. Unless, of course, we're asking the wrong question.

I was a history major at a small liberal arts college. My area of study is generally not burdened with immediate, practical application. I always felt sorry for all those engineering, education and nursing majors who had to actually go out and become engineers, teachers and nurses. My liberal arts training brilliantly prepared me to do the thing I love best: learn.

I expect to learn something new every day and I'm rarely disappointed.

The Knight Foundation survey strikes a resonant chord because we are hard-wired for community identification. It forms a significant sense of self. I haven't lived in Walnut Grove for almost 30 years and I don't expect to return yet I'll always be from there. My young farm life guides and informs the life I've built in my urban community.

What happens, though, if 38 percent of our recent college graduates act on their desire to leave? As the Minnesota Private College Council repeatedly stresses [PDF], Minnesota is already having difficulty meeting projected job growth's educational demands. Simply stated, we're not graduating enough people to continue Minnesota's economic growth track record.

The dispiriting criticism encoded in college-value critiques is at odds with Knight Foundation survey. People's capacity to dream and risk flows from community confidence. Every investment should be coolly evaluated but our lives are defined and enriched by our irrationality. We marry; bear and raise children; and establish households as acts of faith more than as dispassionate market responses.

Pursuing a college degree is rooted in faith and rationality. The outcome, optimally, is reflected in greater financial security and in profoundly enriched lives.

Robert Browning, a major Victorian-era British poet, lived much of his life in Italy, writing dramatic monologues in conversational form. In "Andrea del Sarto," Browning's  protagonist recalls a debate over a painter's execution of technique, briefly recounts it, then dismisses the discussion's pithiness by asking, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

That question underscores education's centrality in the fight for Minnesota's future. With a strong education, we have promises but no guaranty. Without an education, we have nothing. My money is on the former.


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