ANALYSIS | More education in Minnesota and nationally — but still not enough

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Compared to seventy years ago, the percentage of students who finish high school is much higher, according to Census Bureau analysts. While in the 1940s only 24 percent graduated from high school, today almost 90 percent have a high school degree (86 percent). Also, in the 1940s, less than five percent of the population had a college degree, whereas nowadays, 27 percent of the adult population has completed college or a higher degree. Each generation seems to be having a little more education than the previous one.

Another trend that has been noticed in the last decade is that women are making important strides in their educational path. Since 2002, the adult female population is more likely to complete high school than men. In the 2010 survey, the employed female population with a bachelor’s degree or more was two percentage points above men (37 percent vs. 35 percent respectively).

In Minnesota, according to the American Community Survey, 41 percent of the population 25 and over attained an associate degree or higher. The Asian and white segments rank first and second respectively in the percentage of bachelor’s degree obtained (44 and 32 percent), whereas Black, Latino and American Indian lag behind (19, 14, and 12 percent respectively).

Where the numbers come from

Last May, the U.S. Census Bureau released data on educational attainment in the nation based on the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement. This 2010 survey was conducted at about 77,000 addresses nationwide. To understand the data we need to differentiate between school enrollment, the number of students who actually go to school, and educational attainment, the amount of schooling an individual possesses. Put another way, educational attainment measures the highest level of education that an individual has completed for the adult population (age 25 and older).

What does that mean for the future of education and economic competitiveness in the U.S. and Minnesota? Although it is very encouraging that the U.S. population as a whole is improving its educational attainment, it is obvious that more needs to be done to make sure that the new generations are well equipped for the jobs of the future, particularly for specific segments of historically disadvantaged populations.

Minnesota might face a skills gap by year 2018. A 2010 study by Georgetown University points out that the state will rank fifth in the share of jobs that will require a bachelor’s degree and 48th in jobs for high school dropouts. Because of demographic changes and a growing retiree population, the state will be in need of a well-educated and productive workforce to remain prosperous and competitive. So far, foreign-born workers seem to have more advanced degrees than people born in the U.S. Something must be done domestically to close that gap.

The participation of students in the recent street demonstrations under the umbrella of Occupy Wall Street remind us that one of the most challenging issues is the almost prohibitive cost of higher education. High tuition at our public colleges and universities is the main barrier for most to overcome in their pursuit of a college degree. More people with college and vocational degrees will increase people’s income and well-being, improve levels of work productivity, grow the economy, and lower unemployment. It is encouraging that the Obama administration is taking some right steps to address this, but it is vitally important for our legislators in Minnesota to fully fund the MnSCU and University of Minnesota systems.