Minnesota’s College Completion Problem & a chance to save money

This column originally appeared on Hometownsource.com, October 2, 2017

Minnesota’s college completion problem and

a chance to save money

by Joe Nathan


Minnesota doesn’t have a problem with students entering two- or four-year colleges. Most high school graduates do that. But we do have a problem with not enough students completing a certificate or diploma.

October, proclaimed “College Knowledge” month by state officials, gives Minnesota students and families a chance to save money and learn more about college completion. Those savings can help Minnesotans reach an important goal that a newly released poll shows most Minnesotans don’t know about.

Here’s the problem. Minnesota Office of Higher Education statistics show that more than 80 percent of high school graduates enter a college or university. But only 61 percent of our young people, ages 25-44, have earned some form of certificate or diploma. The Office of Higher Education shows a huge gap among various groups: 23 percent of American Indian, 27 percent of Hispanic, 35 percent of African American and 65 percent of Asian American and white students have earned a post-secondary certificate at a two-year college, or a four-year degree.

As Larry Pogemiller, Commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, pointed out to me: “Any debt, when you don’t complete a certificate or diploma, is too much debt.” He explained that there’s no economic benefit for students who start, but don’t complete a certificate or degree.

Taking a small step toward making a two- or four-year college more affordable, many Minnesota public and private post-secondary institutions are waiving admissions fees for all or part of October. Many colleges have eliminated the application fee, year-round, for students from low income families. Admissions fees can add up, so this helps. A complete list of participating colleges and universities can be found here:  http://bit.ly/2wwJvAy

Along with this savings opportunity, a newly-released poll shows the vast majority of Minnesotans don’t know about an important goal that the 2015 state Legislature set.  After studying what Minnesota needs to continue making progress, the Legislature decided that by 2025, 70 percent of Minnesota adults, ages 25-55, should have attained some form of post-secondary certificate or degree.

Setting a goal doesn’t guarantee that it will be achieved, but getting there is more likely if people know about it. Most Minnesotans don’t.

Center for School Change, where I work, commissioned a statewide poll, conducted in July 2017. Public Policy Polling, a widely-respected organization that accurately predicted both national and Minnesota presidential results last year, administered the poll.

This poll found that only 25 percent of Minnesotans said they were “very” or “somewhat” familiar with the goal. Only 24 percent thought the goal was 70 percent or higher. When told that the goal was 70 percent, the majority of Minnesotans (59 percent either strongly or somewhat supported it). Results are here: http://bit.ly/2g92JWH

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chair of the Minnesota House Education Innovation Policy Committee, responded, that the poll “points to the need for the K-12 system, especially secondary schools to be talking with students about this goal, and the reasons for it.”

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who chairs the Minnesota House Education Finance Committee agreed that “there needs to be more discussion of the goal focused on ‘What does this mean for me and my kids?’”

Rep Bud Norness, R-Fergus Falls, chair of the Minnesota House Higher Education Committee told me he “wasn’t shocked” by the poll’s results. He continued, “We have to keep trying to educate people.” Norness believes higher education must “deliver relevant education that leads to jobs.” He cited an example in Perham, where the local community is not satisfied with some job training programs, and is establishing its own program.

Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley-Rosemount, believes “Students and families need to understand that most Minnesota jobs – now –  require at least some post-secondary education – not necessarily a four-year diploma.”

While agreeing “absolutely” that students need to know about the goal, former Minnesota legislator Larry Pogemiller was not surprised by the poll’s results. He told me: “I don’t think it’s unusual… most Minnesotans don’t know  every specific provision that the legislature passes. However, institutional players better know. We need more students not only entering but earning some form of higher education certificate or diploma”

The Office of Higher Education has convened education and community groups to help achieve the “attainment goal.” OHE also has many resources for “College Knowledge” month, helping students and families prepare to not just enter, but succeed in some form of post-secondary education:  http://bit.ly/2y20ZbP


Joe Nathan, was a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator and PTA president. He currently directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org. or @JoeNathan9249