There were more than 65,000 high school graduates in Minnesota last spring, a number we will not soon see again – the number of high school graduates will fall by 9 percent between now and 2014.
This is not what Minnesota needs. The decreasing supply of high school graduates and the ensuing drop in college graduates will come just as more Baby Boomers retire, posing a serious challenge for our economy.
Many Minnesotans see the problem on the horizon. On the television program “Vanishing Graduates And Minnesota’s Future,” real estate broker Tony DelDotto described the situation as a bubble that is about to break, one that requires immediate attention to ensure our state has the human capital it needs to ensure a quality economy in the future.
Minnesotans like DelDotto know that the state should recommit itself to helping more of those remaining students succeed. And we have to think about just who those remaining students will be. The share of students who are low-income will be growing. They also will be more ethnically diverse.
We are not doing a good enough job with these groups presently. For example, less than one out of three Minnesota students from low-income families attend college, compared to two out of three when income is not considered. Clearly, income should not be a significant barrier to higher education for a qualified student.
We already know what works: Providing need-based aid directly to college students. Through a little-known state program with an underwhelming name – the State Grant Program – Minnesota makes a critical contribution to addressing the needs of lower-income students. About 80,000 Minnesota college students – one out of four undergraduates – receive these grants. These students attend all kinds of institutions, public and private, and are pursuing both two- and four-year degrees.
Students certainly are not overly reliant on this state support. Loans still make up the majority of the financial aid that Minnesota undergraduates tap, with institutional grants the second largest source of financial aid. Both have increased dramatically in recent years while state and federal grants have become a smaller and smaller source of student financial aid. The State Grant Program now account for 11 percent of undergrads’ financial aid, about half the share of grants from institutions.
After falling in value in recent years, State Grant funding received a much needed increase this year. Federal and state policy makers made decisions that will put an additional $11.3 million dollars into the program. This doesn’t make up for years of disinvestment, but it is a start. Experts say more than $200 million is needed to allow Minnesota to catch up with grant programs offered in other leading states.
Minnesota policymakers will face tough choices along with a budget deficit in the next Legislative session. Even so, with the supply of college graduates failing to keep up with the economy’s needs, increasing State Grant Program funding will remain a wise investment.
David B. Laird, Jr., is president of the Minnesota Private College Council. The Council co-produced with TPT’s MN Channel the television program “Vanishing Graduates & Minnesota’s Future,” available at www.learnmoremn.org. For more on the State Grant program, visit www.mnprivatecolleges.org.