Like a house on fire: Education in MN

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If your cell phone rang with a message that your house was on fire, you’d get up and leave — immediately, no question about it. That degree of urgency, that recognition of an emergency situation, is what we all need to feel about student achievement in our schools, said Phil Davis, the president of Metropolitan Community and Technical College (MCTC), speaking at a Wilder Foundation-sponsored forum on increasing postsecondary education access and success.

Speakers and panelists described programs that succeed in getting lower-income students and students of color into colleges and helping them to succeed. The three-year-old Power of YOU program doubled the number of under-represented (low-income and students of color) graduates of Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools going to Minnesota public colleges in the Twin Cities during its first two years of operation. The program combines student support services throughout high school with free tuition for two years at MCTC, St. Paul College and Metropolitan State University.

The morning program, Making the Grade: Increasing postsecondary education access and success had a clear message: We know what works. The Wilder Foundation is rightly known for careful research, and their evaluation of the first two years of the Power of You program showed what works:

• Free tuition is a powerful incentive, especially when paired with accurate cost and financial aid information. Responding to a question about the single most significant change to increase educational opportunity for underrepresented youth, State Senator Sandy Pappas suggested free tuition for the first two years of college. Students in the target group generally overestimated the cost of going to college and did not know about available financial aid.

• “Students who participated in community service learning and in mentoring were more likely to be in good academic standing after one year,” according to the Wilder research. They also tended to have higher GPAs. Both academic and non-academic supports are needed for success.

• Better preparation is essential, from reaching students earlier in their educational career to aligning high school curriculum with college entrance requirements to offering summer and after-school remedial and college prep courses.

St. Paul Central High School principal Mary Mackbee emphasized the importance of preparing every student to attain a post-secondary degree, whether that means completing vocational/technical training courses, two-year college programs or academic study in four-year colleges and graduate schools. Mackbee cited partnerships such as Power of YOU, AVID, College in the Schools, and Admission Possible as powerful levers for increasing the college attendance by low-income students and students of color.

Wilder research director Paul Mattessich pointed out that in the seven-county metro area, about three percent of adults 65 and older are people of color, while 22 percent of children under the age of 10 are people of color.

Mattessich noted that 80% of growth occupations require at least some post-secondary education. He cited Bureau of Labor Statistics figures showing that 79 percent of occupations with above average projected growth and above average wages require completion of post-secondary degrees. He emphasized the importance of increasing post-secondary education access and success for youth of color, both for the success of individuals and for the economic well-being of the community.

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