New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about a topic very close to our Smart Investment hearts. One reason the U.S. gained so much ground as a world economic power in the last century, he says, was because of emphasis on education that increased high school graduation rates and higher ed attainment.
We're now threatened, he argues, because America's educational progress slowed around 1970, and then stagnated between 1975 and 1990.
This threatens the country’s long-term prospects. It also widens the gap between rich and poor. [Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, authors of The Race Between Education and Technology] describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
Since that period coincides rather closely with when Minnesota increased its education investment and began showing stronger economic growth than the nation as a whole, I went looking for some statistics on historic attainment rates to see how Minnesota fared.
Sure enough, I found that Minnesota did not stagnate. In fact, it continued to widen what had been a very modest gap above the U.S. average (for percent of the population with at least a high school diploma) by 7 points between 1940 and 2000.
In the chart [click to enlarge] you can see Minnesota was just slightly above average in 1940. Minnesota gained graduates at a rate higher than the average gain in each subsequent decade, with the greatest proportional leap between 1960 and 1970.
The state's college attainment tells a slightly different story, as we lagged the average percent of the population with at least a bachelor's degree until 1970. Then Minnesota's college attainment rates continued to accelerate with each decade.
What's not apparent is that most of Minnesota's gains came from increased attainment for white college students after 1980, when black attainment rates hit the wall after posting big gains the decade before.
Our research for Smart Investments in Minnesota's Students demonstrates that the state still has an opportunity to grow educational attainment rates — especially among low-income students as well as students of color and Native Americans. Minnesota cannot afford only to reinforce the rates of white students, because the demographics of our student population are very different than during our previous expansion of attainment rates.
It will be tempting to try to ride this apparent lead awhile longer, since budgets are tight and the economy is uncertain. But we've already been gradually under-investing in the college pipeline. In FY 1992, Minnesota ranked 9th in elementary and high school education spending as a percent of total income; by FY 2005, we were 31st.
A growing number of educators, economists and business leaders agree with Brooks on this:
[T]he skills slowdown is the biggest issue facing the country. Rising gas prices are bound to dominate the election because voters are slapped in the face with them every time they visit the pump. But this slow-moving problem, more than any other, will shape the destiny of the nation.
As students head back to school this fall, Growth & Justice will be heading across the state to talk about our strategy for increasing Minnesota's post-secondary attainment 50 percent by the year 2020. There’s strong consensus that education investment already has shaped Minnesota’s destiny, and enriching our human capital will pay off again.
— Charlie Quimby