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Commentary -- Let's shoot for moon in Minnesota higher ed

By Dane Smith

I remember the Sputnik scare, watching the October night sky in 1957 with my dad, looking for the slowly moving dot of light that proved the Russian communists had beat us into space. The frantic realization that our nation and states had to get smarter touched me in another personal way.

A few months earlier in the space race, my first-grade teacher had penned a note on my report card, urging my parents to get me started toward a science career - in the national interest, of course.

I ended up in journalism and political science, which probably isn't what Mrs. Gunderson had in mind. But we managed to get to the moon first, an event much celebrated this week, and we won the Cold War, too.

And the point of all this is that 52 years later we have a bigger Sputnik scare on our hands, a more legitimate threat now than it was then. Here are the hard facts about serious slippage on our education advantage.

For most of the last century, the United States (with Minnesota ranked high among the states) was first in the world by a long shot in the "higher-ed attainment" - the percentage of residents with some sort of post-high school credential, whether it was a nurse's training from a community college or a PhD.

Syndicated columnist David Brooks, who stakes out center-right territory, was eloquent on this subject when he came to Minnesota last year for a Center of the American Experiment event. Brooks drew a strong and direct link between America's pre-eminence in universal and, I would add, mostly public education attainment. And he noted how the U.S. steadily built this advantage between 1870 and 1950, adding almost one year per decade to total average attainment.

Over the last 60 years we've lost that momentum and competitive edge - from a first-place ranking in 1950, the United States has fallen to about 10th place in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds who have some sort of higher-education credential. Ahead of us are mostly nations with higher taxes and larger public expenditures on human development: Norway, Denmark, France, Ireland, and Belgium, but also Canada, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

China and India, our biggest rivals, have much lower attainment rates but they are catching up fast. And because their combined population is about seven times ours, they already have more educated and skilled workers than we do.

In another column this week, Brooks summed it up with three phrases: "America rose because it got more out of its own people than other nations." And: "The skills slowdown is the biggest issue facing the country." And: "Boosting educational attainment at the bottom (lower- and middle-income levels) is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy."

President Obama last week in Michigan, in a stirring testimonial to the "undervalued asset" represented by the nation's community colleges, outlined an American Graduation Initiative. Reminiscent of John F. Kennedy's famous shoot-for-the-moon promise, Obama announced a goal of boosting America's higher-education attainment rate to highest in the world by the end of the next decade

Here in Minnesota, we at Growth & Justice and the Archibald Bush Foundation have called for setting a similarly audacious goal for Minnesota: We want Minnesota to increase by 50 percent over the next decade the percentage of our young people with at least some sort of higher-education credential.

Obama's proposed $12 billion infusion of capital into the community colleges provides money for innovation and to stimulate accountability (matching training to actual jobs needed), as well as for tracking outcomes. Some of this focus on performance improvement is already under way in Minnesota. For example, getting students to "Finish What you Start" has become a mantra and a T-shirt slogan at Inver Grove Heights' Inver Hills Community College, where I graduated with a two-year degree in 1975.

Achieving these goals likely will require big bucks, much more for early childhood development, for instance, and that could mean higher taxes. But there are few investments, even in the private sector, with a bigger return.

Our research at Growth & Justice shows that the difference between a Minnesotan dropping out of high school and getting a higher-ed credential amounts to $1 million over that person's lifetime, in increased earnings, tax revenue and reduced welfare and intervention costs.

There were economic benefits to the space race. But investment toward higher education supremacy is a true bonanza and a better payoff than landing on the moon - or even Mars.

Dane Smith is president of the progressive-leaning St. Paul-based think-tank Growth & Justice.