Free 2 years of technical college key part of Minnesota’s new higher ed bill / Joe Nathan’s Column

By Joe Nathan on June 17, 2015 at 1:55 pm


Families looking for help with higher education costs will find a lot of it in Minnesota’s recently adopted higher education law.

With controversies over K-12 and environmental bills, this one has not received the attention it deserves.

The law is a national model because it combines more support for students with higher expectations of Minnesota’s colleges or universities.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, chairs the Minnesota Senate’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka

She told me via email, “I am very excited about its passage as I think there are breakthrough policies within it.” I agree.

Bonoff cited four key provisions. Though a brief column can only summarize a law that’s more than 90 pages long, each of the four deserves attention.

1. Clear goals and rewards for progress toward them.

The law establishes several specific goals for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Over the next few years, up to 5 percent of each system’s funding depends on how many of those goals are achieved. Among MnSCU’s goals are to increase by 4 percent the number of degrees, certificates and diplomas awarded in 2016-17, compared to 2008; and to reallocate at least $22 million from central administration to “direct mission activities, stem growth in student tuition and fees, and programs that benefit students.”

The University of Minnesota’s specific goals include reallocating at least $15 million from central administration to programs that directly benefit students, increase overall undergrad graduation rates, and increase graduation rates for students of color by at least 1 percent.

Goals could be more ambitious, but this is a wise approach.

The law also sets a goal of at least 70 percent of Minnesotans, ages 25-44, earning a degree, diploma or certificate by 2025. I asked Meredith Fergus of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education what percentage of this age group currently has done this. She replied that one of the MOHE’s responsibilities is to answer that question. She cited U.S. Census Bureau figures showing that 51 percent of Minnesotans ages 25-44 currently have earned at least a two-year higher education degree. But this does not include certificates taking less than two years to earn. Census Bureau data also shows huge differences among various groups: 60 percent of Asian-Americans and 55 percent of whites have earned at least a two-year degree, compared to 29 percent of black, 21 percent of Hispanic and 13 percent of American-Indians in the 25-44 age range.

2. Up to two years of free technical college education for students whose families have an adjusted gross income of up to $90,000 per year. The program will start in the 2016-17 school year. Growing numbers of good jobs require training offered at Minnesota’s two-year technical colleges. This is an extremely important opportunity. Fergus estimates that it will serve around 1,300 students.

3. “Earn while you learn” program to support apprenticeship programs in high-demand fields. This is a program that allows participants to develop skills needed for good jobs while they are working for a company.

4. Funds to help create new high school courses in career and technical fields where students earn free college credit. The law also includes money to help colleges and universities expand existing dual-credit courses. This is the first time Minnesota’s higher education bill has helped pay for these dual-credit courses.

Overall, the new law includes more than $1.5 billion per year for the next two years. It’s very encouraging to see that legislators agreed to spend money on major needs and research-based programs.

Legislators wisely were clear about their expectations and provided incentives for the public education higher education systems to work toward those goals. The full bill is available here:

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.