Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Minnesota 2020 Journal: Who’s Going to College?

February 15, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

School is in Minnesota’s future. It’s also in Minnesota’s past but what worked 20 or 120 years ago, won’t work quite so neatly tomorrow. Minnesota’s workforce development is predicated on post K12 education with the additional expectation that workers will engage regular, on-going learning over their laboring lives.

That’s what educators will tell you, in no uncertain terms. The rest of us? We’re behind the curve. We’re loosely applying our distant high school and post-secondary learning experiences, combined with the odd US News & World Report article that we read in an Urgent Care waiting room, to today’s college environment. Most of us are, in effect, studying a 1913 train schedule in order to reach a 2013 destination.

Admittedly, I have my share of bones to pick with higher education but I’m most interested in access. Collectively, we hold out-dated and unrealistic expectations about financing college. One size does not fit all.

One particularly difficult-to-shake college myth is that a student can earn sufficient funds to pay for college by working full-time during the summer and part-time during the school year. They can’t. It’s an impossible expectation rooted in a post-World War II moment when manufacturing sector wage growth transformed the American economy. For a very brief period, it was possible to work a factory job and save sufficient summer wages to pay college tuition.

But, a college education was also changing in this period. Its cost structure was rapidly evolving as information-based work proliferated, seemingly overnight. Remember, a job like Computer Programmer didn’t exist in 1933 just as Web Designer didn’t exist in 1983. Creating an academic curriculum for these positions was a different order of magnitude from teaching English literature or Physics.

A hundred years ago, a college education reinforced social strata. A conventional undergraduate education served to strengthen and expand class social ties. Simultaneously, that function was undermined by new immigrants who founded colleges, determined that their sons and daughters would escape the old country’s strictly defined social order. Underlying all higher education motivation was the growing understanding that knowledge, not status or class, anchored economic opportunity and stability.

Today, about 450,000 Minnesotans are pursuing a post-secondary education. Unsurprisingly, a little over half are 24 or younger. Among undergraduate students, 66% are 24 or younger, accounting for two of every three undergrads. That also means that one of every three are 25 or older.

Due in substantial part to the national economic recession and subsequent slow recovery, the 25-34 year old age group grew dramatically, particularly at two-year higher education institutions. Typically, these students have children and balance work, school and family responsibilities. They are every bit as eager as 18-24 year old students to learn but are having a very different college experience. That experience is transforming higher education.

Minnesota’s two-year community colleges have rapidly responded, adding more early morning and late evening classes. They’ve expanded online courses, delivering on the community college dream of creating access to higher education’s transformative path. While this expansion has its challenges, program, it turns out, is the easy part. Financing college is much more difficult.

Under student financial aid guidelines, full-time students qualify for more aid than part-time students. Given the growing percentage of part-time, working 25-34 year old students, that seems naïve and outdated. More critically, lack of financial aid access creates an additional barrier to higher education.

We say that we understand that on-going education and life-long learning is important but we don’t act like it. Even today, our expectation default is that college is for 18-22 year olds. As a result, we tend to shape our higher ed access accordingly until something shakes us up, forcing change.

During my first two college summers, when I was 19 and 20, I lifeguarded and taught swimming lessons at the Tracy Municipal Swimming Pool. Assisting in our adult swimming classes, I learned to understand the complex barriers to adult learning. If you’re 40 and haven’t learned to swim, at least in some rudimentary fashion, the first instructive step is figuring out what’s kept you from learning to swim.

Sometimes, it’s lack of access to facility and instruction. Sometimes, it’s psychological, fearing the water. In those cases, stroke instruction is simple compared to helping people develop comfort in the water. Focusing on access, with the expectation that swimming is a valuable, beneficial skill, guides program. Working adults generally don’t have an hour, from 1:30-2:30 to take a swimming lesson. They need alternatives.

That’s Minnesota’s higher ed challenge. Without constant upgrade, Minnesota’s workforce degrades. Higher ed access, in all forms, moves our state forward. Improving access requires a change in attitude, robust financial aid, and scheduling flexibility. College no longer starts at 18, ending four years later. Minnesota’s higher education policy must keep pace with need and demand.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Randy McLaughlin says:

    February 19, 2013 at 9:59 am

    A couple of years back, my wife enrolled in a graduate-level certificate program at the U of M.  The University required every student in health-related programs to purchase their health insurance.  They would waive that requirement for those with employer-provided insurance or those on Minnesota Care but both she and I were self-employed at the time and the University refused to recognize our individual plan.  We (actually the scholorship grantor) ended up having to lay out an extra $1000 to pay for insurance we did not need.

    Interestingly, had she decided to continue the insurance that the U offered and later enroll in another program, the insurance they offered would not have been recognized as adequate for waiver, so by their own standards, the U was offering unacceptably substandard insurance.

    The educational establishment would like us to think that “life long education” means regular coursework at one of their institutions.  But there are often much more efficient, cost-effective and timely means to gain knowledge and skills than those bloated institutions offer.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    February 20, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Some time ago (1980s?) I read about a program for life-long learning that was being used in one of the Scandinavian countries.  One advantage of it is that students are guaranteed time off from classes to earn money.

    The approach was for students to study enough of an occupational field to earn a one- or two-year vocational diploma or degree.  Let’s say nursing, with the first certification being able to work as a nurses’ aide or home health care worker for two years.  This two years’ work would provide an income from which the student could save tuition money for the next step while gaining experience in direct care.

    Our hypothetical student would then proceed to earn a four-year nursing degree and could then work as a hospital, clinic or operating room or other specialized nurse for as many years as s/he liked. 

    If our nurse wanted to teach nursing, s/he would now return to earn her PhD.

    At every stage in this process except the first, the student is building on both knowledge and experience (theory and practice) rather than just knowledge.