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Report says Minnesota's higher ed system is ill-prepared for the future
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"I've never read a full book before," says college student Josephine Kuntz. "You go through high school you can get away with it." She's one of many high school graduates who must take remedial classes when they enter college. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
A Minnesota Citizens League report on higher education in Minnesota released Tuesday says the state is ill-prepared to handle the changing and expanding demographics of low income, immigrant and minority students. The report urges state leaders to make short and long term reforms to ensure Minnesota maintains its high quality of life by investing in a highly educated workforce.

St. Paul, Minn. — Among the concerns raised in the Citizens League report is the high number of college students who need remedial education. The report says 31 percent of Minnesota's high school graduates take at least one remedial course in math, writing, and reading.

"I've never read a full book before," says college student Josephine Kuntz. "You go through high school you can get away with it. When you get to college, it's like you gotta do it."

This is Kuntz's first semester at Century College in White Bear Lake. Mandatory intake testing at Century placed the 19-year-old from Scandia in remedial math and reading classes.

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Image Reading lab

"It surprised me because I know I'm a smart person," Kuntz says. "But I don't think I gave it my all in high school. And I'm not disappointed in having to do it, because it's brought me a long way."

Century College's first-year program caters almost exclusively to students like Kuntz -- 87 percent of Century's student body needs remedial math classes. Significant, but smaller percentages of students test below college level in reading and writing.

One reason for the disappointing numbers is a lack of motivation in high school. Citizens League task force co-chair Rondi Erickson says other reasons include cultural, economic, or language barriers among a growing number of students.

"We have an increasing mix of students who come from lower income, populations of color, immigrant populations, communities that have either not chosen -- or not done particularly well -- with higher education," says Erickson.

Erickson says remediation is unfair to taxpayers because it makes them pay twice for a student's education, and furthers what the task force calls the state's backward slide.

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Image Rondi Erickson

Last spring, Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Erickson and businessman Vance Opperman to convene the task force to study the state's higher education system. About 30 people took part, meeting over the past six months.

Opperman says the task force recommendations are based on increasing the quality and quantity of incoming college students, and enhancing the colleges and universities serving them.

"We do spend $1.3 billion a year on higher ed. And we think to some degree that can be better spent, and we think it can be organized somewhat better," says Opperman. "Frankly, given the challenges we see, there are changes that will have to happen."

Two recommendations call for increased state investment. First, the group recommends spending more in the high schools on testing and curriculum, to better prepare students for college. Second, the task force calls for spending more on the University of Minnesota's research programs and infrastructure.

The task force says the remaining recommendations won't require additional investment.

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Image Gov. Pawlenty

They include:

-Reforming the senior year curriculum and raising high school students' expectations to complete at least two years of college.

-Creating more specialization among the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system's dozens of campuses across the state.

-Raising admissions standards for students applying to the U of M Twin Cities campus.

The report does not directly address whether some college campuses should be closed. But it hints in that direction. The report calls for giving MnSCU more autonomy from the state to negotiate employee contracts, and to make decisions regarding whether to close or consolidate campuses.

At a news conference releasing the report, Gov. Pawlenty said he's pleased with the task force's work and will refer to it as he crafts his budget recommendations for higher education.

"They're kind of sending a directional signal to the policymakers," says Pawlenty. "Now it's our job to put the meat on the bones, or the details behind this and say -- if we're actually going to move in this direction, there's some work that has to be done."

At least one lawmaker is ready to move on the recommendations, and has invited the League to present its report to a Senate committee early in the 2005 session.

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