If you’ve been to a department store lately, you’ve seen the overwhelming displays of dorm room essentials: shower caddies, twin XL bedsheets, bean bag chairs and mini fridges. You’ve also seen the incoming college freshmen, checklists in hand. Some are eager and energetic; some just look lost.
As thousands of students head for the open waters of higher education, it’s worth asking: Who’s going to college in Minnesota?
A lot depends on which slice of the pie you look at, but the statewide average rate has held steady. Another big takeaway is that college enrollment rates among low-income high school graduates and graduates of color have held or increased since the recession, according to state data.
Additionally, the data shows very low college enrollment rates among graduates of online high schools.
In this data, “college” includes any Minnesota postsecondary school that participates in state financial aid (from four-year universities to two-year community colleges to vocational programs like automotive or beauty schools) or any postsecondary school in the nation that participates in federal financial aid.
Some trade schools outside Minnesota (a beauty school in Fargo, for example) might not be included, but the analysis captures 96 percent of postsecondary institutions in the nation. The 2016 data in this analysis is preliminary and doesn’t include students enrolling at some small private vocational schools. Complete 2016 data won’t be available until the end of this year.
Enrollment rates tend to increase during a weak economy and decrease in a strong economy because graduates feel they can get a good job without a degree, said Meredith Fergus, manager of financial aid research at the Office of Higher Education.
Although the economy has started to recover recently, Minnesota’s enrollment rates haven’t declined as might be expected, particularly among low-income students and students of color, Fergus said.
Those groups have maintained the gains they made during the recession: “For high school graduates with no other training, it’s not a great job market right now,” she said.
Part of this might be due to increased funding to the Minnesota State Grant program, which supplements federal Pell Grant money for low-income college students, to help it catch up to rising tuition costs, according to Fergus.
From the ‘90s through about 2010, most higher education funding didn’t account for the increasing cost of college.
Extra funding to the State Grant program was approved by the Legislature in 2011 and it’s been regularly boosted since. To help keep pace, the program also now has automatic cost-of-living and tuition adjustments to keep up with inflation, Fergus said.
Another bright spot in the demographic data: While white high school graduates are still more likely to enroll in college than high school graduates of color, that gap narrowed significantly during the recession and then continued to shrink.
Josh Collins, communications director at the Minnesota Department of Education, said he can’t point to any single factor responsible for that increase, but he did note an emphasis on courses that count for credit in both high school and college.
“A lot of work has been done in school districts to try to make advanced coursework available to students of color and to students who might not otherwise think postsecondary education is in their future,” Collins said.
Online high schools don’t seem to be having the same effect on their students. College enrollment rates for graduates of most of Minnesota’s online high schools are significantly lower than the state average.
However, there are success stories at other schools. Ubah Medical Academy, a charter school in Hopkins primarily serving East African immigrants, emphasizes college readiness to its 50 or so graduates every year, according to its website.
That emphasis seems to be paying off. Since 2009, 86 percent of the school’s graduates have enrolled in college in the fall after graduation, well above the state average of about 70 percent during that time.
Memorial High School in Ely, Higher Ground Secondary Academy in St. Paul and Red Rock Central Secondary in Lamberton all have diverse or low-income populations but above-average rates of college enrollment.
On the gender front, not much has changed. Similar to national trends, women are more likely to go to college. In a typical year in Minnesota, about 75 percent of female high school graduates and about 65 percent of male high school graduates will enroll in the fall immediately after graduation.
But all this focus on postsecondary enrollment raises a question: With the increasing burden that student loans are becoming, is a postsecondary education right for everyone?
“In Minnesota today, to get a job that pays a livable wage, you do need some sort of postsecondary training,” Fergus said. “That could be a welding certificate or some other [vocational training]; it doesn’t have to be a four-year philosophy degree.”
Collins, of the Department of Education, agreed. “We definitely don’t think every single student finds their best fit in a four-year college,” he said. "We do believe that additional learning beyond high school is important, and we’d like to see all students working toward some kind of postsecondary education."