The college gap hurts Minnesota as a whole

Here's a key reason for Minnesota to seriously address the college attainment gap: Not doing so will lead to a less well-educated workforce and slower economic growth for the state.

The college attainment gap between Minnesota's white students and the state's African American and Latino students is often framed as a problem for communities of color. True enough, but given the importance of a well-educated workforce, it's also a problem for the entire state.

How do we know?

It comes down to simple math and some logic. If present trends hold, G&J estimates that Minnesota will have proportionally fewer people with college degrees in the workforce by 2020. Let's look at the numbers.

Changing demographics. First, consider that Minnesotans of color, particularly Latinos and African Americans, are the state's fastest growing populations. The state Demographer's Office projects that Minnesota's white population will grow 9 percent over 30 years, compared to 112 percent for Minnesota's total minority population. The proportion of Minnesota's population that is white alone (excluding Latinos) is projected to fall from 86 percent in 2005 to 75 percent in 2035.

High school graduation rates. Second, consider that these changing demographics will lead to a shift in the demographics of high school graduates, with a dramatic increase in Latinos and African Americans. Indeed, some projections show students of color will comprise about 20 percent of Minnesota high school graduates in 2015, up from 13 percent in 2005.

The number of white, non-Hispanic high school graduates is expected to decrease by about 17 percent, while the number of Latino and African American graduates is projected to increase by 114 percent and 45 percent, respectively. And though the share of graduates who are Minnesotans of color will increase, that share will fall short of what it should be. Why? Because a higher proportion of minority students drop out and don't graduate from high school.

College participation and graduation. Third, consider that Latinos and African Americans in Minnesota participate and graduate from college at a much lower rate than white students. For instance, as a percentage of total white high school graduates, about 50 percent of whites went on to enroll in college in Minnesota between 2004 and 2008, while only about 37 percent of Latinos did so. Graduation rates from college look no better. While 54% of whites who enrolled in Minnesota colleges in 2000 graduated within six years, only 44% of Latinos and 38% of African Americans graduated in the same time period.

In all, this results in a large disparity between whites and the population of African Americans and Latinos when it comes to bachelor's degrees. For example, as of 2006, the percentage of white adults 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher in Minnesota stood at 31%, while the percentages for African Americans were 20% and only 15% for Latinos.

Compound these disparities in college degrees with our first fact about Minnesota's changing demographics and we have a recipe for crisis.

The logic is simple. If the fastest-growing segments of Minnesota's population - the students of color - are graduating from college at a significantly lower rate than their white counterparts, then a smaller share of Minnesota's population as a whole will have college degrees.

Using the data on population and graduation, Growth & Justice estimates that the proportion of Minnesotans ages 25 to 34 with bachelor's degrees will fall from 36 percent in 2006 to about 33% in 2020, using conservative assumptions. Less conservative assumptions lead to a bigger percentage drop for the state.

These Minnesotans ages 25 to 34 in 2020 are the students in our pipeline today, projected out as they enter the critical years of their careers in the workforce. And their trend for college degrees is headed in the wrong direction.

Why does it matter? The benefits of a well-educated population are clear and many.  But just to put a few on the table, a well-educated population enhances workforce productivity, makes our businesses more competitive, and is credited in these past decades with spurring economic growth in Minnesota at a rate that has outpaced the national average. Education has also enabled more individuals to earn a decent living in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

We can't change the demographics, mind you, but we can strive to change the graduation and enrollment rates for Minnesotans of color to boost attainment and keep Minnesota on the upswing for college attainment.

Not addressing Minnesota's attainment gap certainly hurts Minnesotans of color, but it hurts all of Minnesota in the long run.

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