Whose problem? Fewer high school degrees in Minnesota

Minnesota is threatened by drastic disparities between white residents and Minnesotans of color. (See The "Coloring" of Minnesota). Interestingly, this is usually presented as a problem for the state's communities of color but it's far more than that. Case in point: The lagging rates of high school completion.

Among Minnesotans ages 25 and older, 92.6 percent have at least a high school degree (or equivalent), according to the Census Bureau's latest American Community Survey (ACS) data for 2008. This is about 6 percentage points higher than the national average of 86.2 percent. Good news.

But in estimating the outlook, G&J finds that the share of Minnesotans with a high school degree (or equivalent) or higher will likely drop from 92.6 percent in 2008 to 88.5 percent in 2020, barring changes in the current trends. Bad news.

In other words, at the current graduation rates and at the projected level of population growth, in ten years, Minnesota's 25- to 34-year-olds, as a group, will be relatively less educated than today.

Why is this decline expected? The statistical explanation for this is quite simple. As communities of color become a larger proportion of the total Minnesota population, they will also represent a larger proportion of our students. More important, since the graduation rates for Minnesotans of color - particularly African Americans and Latinos - are much lower than those for whites, the overall share of students graduating from high school will decline over time.

Although minorities will likely account for about 20 percent of the total Minnesota population in 2020, they will likely account for only 16 percent of the total share of Minnesotans 25-34 with a high school degree, meaning disproportionately fewer Minnesotans of color will earn the degree.

It's all connected.

The expected drop in the share of younger Minnesotans with high school degrees will continue to ripple through the state - in the form of lower college and trade school attainment, a less competitive work force, wage earners less able to support a family, and increased reliance on public programs for support.

High school graduates earn about $8,000 more annually than working adults without a high school degree. Specifically, the median earnings in the past 12 months for Minnesotans with less than a high school degree was $19,989 (as reported in the ACS, using 2008 inflation-adjusted dollars), while high school graduates (or equivalent) earned $27,448. Though the median earnings for those with a BA degree are significantly higher ($48,260), we must remember that most Minnesotans do not yet earn BA degrees - only 35.1 percent of Minnesotans ages 25-34 had bachelor's degrees in 2008.

The ACS also reports that the poverty rate for those with less than a high school degree is 22.2 percent, while those with just a high school degree (or equivalent) have a poverty rate of about 9.3 percent.

What can we do about it?

Racial disparities in educational attainment will affect Minnesota as a whole, and they will not be reversed by simplistic but politically popular measures aimed at testing, reducing overall spending or changing certification requirements for teachers.

Based on research and insights from educators, Growth & Justice has formulated four principles for guiding Minnesota toward better outcomes from its education dollars. Of particular interest here is our finding that the greatest returns on education investment come from addressing the greatest disparities in opportunity and achievement. Effective investments address the whole student's needs - social support, academic preparation, and improved access to early childhood and post-secondary learning opportunity. And there is no question that, overall, students of color may face different challenges and have different needs.

Perhaps by discussing Minnesota's changing demographics, we can begin to get past the taboos of discussing these disparities and have a frank conversation about race in Minnesota. We can no longer afford to view issues at "their problem." It's our problem, today and tomorrow. As Minnesota's demographics change, our policies must change course, too, for the good of us all.

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