In an economic downturn it’s easy to for us to focus on the bad. Unemployment has increased. The economy has contracted. Housing values have declined. With all of this bad, it may come as a surprise that the downturn has led to some good-helping to reduce the racial gap in higher education attainment in Minnesota.
Minnesota ranks second among the fifty states in overall higher education attainment, with approximately 47 percent of adults aged 25-34 having obtained either a two- or four-year post-secondary degree, according to the Lumina Foundation. However, when this statistic is broken down by race, around 50 percent of white, adult Minnesotans have obtained a two- or four-year degree, whereas only around 32 percent of non-white or Latino Minnesotans have done so.
This disparity in higher education attainment is particularly problematic because of Minnesota’s changing demographic composition. In 2005, 15 percent of the population was non-white or Latino. By 2035, the Minnesota State Demographic Center projects non-whites and Latinos will comprise 25 percent of Minnesota’s population. As a nation, we are moving away from low-skill and manufacturing jobs and toward a high tech, ideas-driven future. As a state, Minnesota needs to maintain its high level of education in order to remain economically competitive. However, unless policymakers are able to close this racial gap in higher education attainment our overall level of educational attainment is likely to decline.
So far, none of this sounds particularly good. Where, then, is the silver lining? The current economic downturn may be helping to alleviate this disparity.
With lay-offs and downsizing sending many individuals back to school, there has been a significant increase in enrollment (averaging 7 percent across the system as a whole) in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. Much of this increase is due to the 25 community and technical colleges, 13 of which have experienced enrollment increases greater than 10 percent over last fall semester. While enrollment has been up in almost all categories, MnSCU has reported that the number of students of color grew by 18.7 percent this fall, from 27,446 to 32,585, outpacing the rate of increase of white students by more than 10 percent.
Data are not yet available to confirm that the economy is the dominant reason for this increase, and there are certainly other factors at work. President Obama’s message to unemployed workers to go back to school and retrain may be finding fertile ground. Individuals might also be recognizing that higher education is important in securing employment in the changing economy.
Higher education institutions are also doing their part to increase minority enrollment. In the MnSCU system, the increase may come partially as a result of their “multi-layered effort to let minorities know that college is possible” said MnSCU official, Nancy Conner. These initiatives include information for prospective students through brochures in nine different languages, same-rate tuition for resident and non-resident students at 22 of its campuses and Access and Opportunity Centers across the state that partner with K-12 programs to provide college-prep and college level courses as well as advising for prospective students.
Nonetheless, some of these initiatives have been in place for several years, and we have really only seen the jump in minority enrollment this year. Moreover, this enrollment boost comes despite community and technical colleges in Minnesota ranking among the most expensive in the nation. On average, students in Minnesota pay $4,500 per year to attend a two-year school in Minnesota, third highest in the nation and $2,100 per year more than the national average.
Despite the cost, the increase in students of color entering college this year has Minnesota on course to begin closing the gap in educational disparities between racial groups. It appears, however, that it has taken an uncontrolled economic phenomenon to create some measure of success in addressing this gap. As we look to the process of rebuilding our economy, it is important not to be shortsighted. Maintaining the high level of educational attainment that we have come to know in Minnesota is going to require policies that help make higher education both a desirable and a feasible option for all students.