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Higher Education: The Importance of Investing in Our State

June 19, 2008 By Joe Radosevich, 2008 George Washington University Shapiro Public Service Fellow

With bridges in bad shape from Winona to Duluth, and strapped school districts across Minnesota, it is important to remember we have a lot to celebrate too. Minnesota's comprehensive network of accessible state colleges and universities is a system we cherish, and shows the vital importance of investing in our state and building on what we already have.

In the 1950's, as Minnesota was preparing for a new economy and global challenges, we began investing in a state-wide system of colleges and universities to bring the advantages of higher education to our towns and citizens.

The Republican-appointed 1950 Commission on Higher Education stated clearly, "Minnesota does not dare to give education less than the support it needs." They argued that, "Only by deliberate efforts to raise the education level of the general population ... can Minnesota keep pace with the world."

The commission felt so strongly that expanding access to education was key to our state's future that they declared, "Additional investments in education cannot be deferred until we can better afford them, because our ability to afford anything depends on education first."

State leaders took the commission's belief and turned it into a state commitment. By Minnesota's 100th birthday in 1958, our state was investing in community colleges and had approved plans to expand to ensure 90% of Minnesotans were no more than 35 miles away from some form of higher education. These efforts continued through the 1960's and created the system of community and technical colleges that are part of today's Minnesota State College and University system (MnSCU). It is accessible, and it has fulfilled the goal of helping communities compete in a changing economy.

"Access," said MnSCU's Associate Vice Chancellor Linda Kohl, "has always been our primary goal." With open admission-which allows anyone with a high school degree or equivalent to enroll in 2-year colleges, lower tuition than other state institutions, and campuses in 46 communities, MnSCU has met the challenge of previous generations to bring the opportunity of higher education to the general population. The system is comprehensive geographically, from Rainy River Community College in International Falls to Riverland Community College in Albert Lea, as well as in the programs offered, which range from associate degrees in Nursing and Nanoscience Technology, to graduate degrees in Business and Computer Science.

MnSCU remains one of Minnesota's structural economic advantages. A 2002 report on MnSCU and rural economic development by the University of Minnesota's State and Local Policy Program, found that "educational institutions are important feedback mechanisms that foster knowledge development within rural 'knowledge clusters'". The idea is that as rural communities adapt to a "knowledge-based economy" and an era of globalization, they cannot turn to traditional economic models. Mankato, for example is home to various wireless technology companies. The "feedback" that colleges and universities provide include related workforce training as well as research. Schools offer programs and degrees that companies need to advance their business, and they partner together to bridge education with work. Mankato is not alone, Minnesota has nimble educational institutions that can adapt to build on and create economic successes for communities across the state.

Just as Minnesota invested in education to adapt to and succeed in a new economy on our 100th birthday, MnSCU is helping Minnesota retrain and succeed in the new economy on our 150th. Our system of accessible colleges and universities are invaluable economic assets, and show what public investment can do.

We have nurtured this comprehensive network for over two generations. Yet state policymakers' dedication to higher education has waned. According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, when adjusted for inflation, tuition for four-year programs has increase 59 percent since 2001. MnSCU remains a system we can celebrate and are proud of, but it is important to remember that state investment created this remarkable infrastructure, and just like our bridges, a lack of investment and attention can and will have terrible consequences.

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