Column: Matching higher education with economic demand

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

Too many Minnesotans are spending thousands of dollars to earn a degree in fields where there are not many well-paying jobs. And we need to do a far better job of helping more students graduate with some form of higher education certificate or degree.

These were two of the strongest messages of a Dec. 8 meeting at the Minnesota History Center convened by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, chair of the Minnesota Senate Higher Education Committee, along with several business and community groups.

More than 350 people attended. The focus was on increasing higher education graduation rates, helping students be better informed about available jobs and “growing” Minnesota’s economy so that there are many more well-paying jobs.

The most startling statistics shared came from Steve Hine, director of the Labor Market Research Information Office at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. His research, which will be posted soon online, showed that:

–Thousands of Minnesotans who have earned one-, two- or four-year college degrees are in jobs that don’t require the education that they have. These tend to be lower paying jobs.

–Meanwhile, some Minnesota businesses, such as rural manufacturing companies have openings for well-paid jobs that they are having difficulty filling, in part because few people have needed skills.

–While some people may want jobs for which they are “over-prepared,” growing the Minnesota economy requires a much better match of skills and needs.

Other speakers pointed out that education should not be designed just to help people fill jobs available today. Education has many benefits, not just those related to economics. This is important. Consultant Nate Garvis pointed out that schools should not just educate people for jobs currently available. Some of the most exciting future jobs have not yet been created.

Meanwhile, Susan Brower, Minnesota’s state demographer, pointed out that our population is growing mostly among communities of color.

This led to Jennifer Godinez, associate director of Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, and Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who stressed the importance of an equity agenda. Minnesota should make research-based investments that help more students succeed in K-12 and higher education. Just adding funds to education won’t necessarily produce these results.

Legislators will be discussing these issues in the 2015 legislative session, but Bonoff got an early start and skillfully convened legislators of both parties and representatives of other groups Dec. 8 to consider possible goals and strategies.

Asked to vote on top priorities to improve graduation rates, only 5 percent of those in attendance said one of the two most important things the 2015 Legislature should do would be to set some goals and monitor progress.

I think setting goals is vital. Bonoff helped plan the meeting after learning earlier this fall that Minnesota is one of about half the states that has not set goals for higher education “attainment” (i.e. percentage of people graduating with some form of certificate or degree). In another vote, 79 percent said setting goals is important – though, unfortunately, it was not a top priority for the vast majority.

These discussions need to include more families and students and a greater diversity of people than were represented at the recent meeting. Bonoff reached out to the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership to include them as a co-sponsor. The agenda was revised to include more thoughtful, diverse viewpoints, including people mentioned above, as well as Maureen Ramirez of the Growth and Justice “think tank.”

But no high school or college students were on the program. Their voices are vital. They can describe programs that are helping more of them succeed.

Moreover, participants were predominantly white middle age. Sixty-six percent were age 45 and older. Eighty-four percent were white.

Bonoff described the more than 350 people who attended as “an amazing turnout.”

Sen. Melissa Wiklund, DFL-Bloomington, pointed out that reaching goals discussed “will require coordination with our high school system.”

I agree with both of them. Building on Minnesotans’ enthusiasm, insights and energy can help many more people succeed.


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