CASS LAKE -- Staff from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education met with local tribal college leaders Tuesday to share ideas on how to close post-secondary attainment gaps with Native Americans.

Held at Leech Lake Tribal College, the meeting featured a presentation from the office's Senior Research Analyst Alex Hermida, followed by an open discussion between those in attendance. According to Higher Education Office Commissioner Dennis Olson, the effort is part of a statewide campaign called Forward Together.

The campaign is an effort to make the public aware of the state's goal of getting the percentage of Minnesotans age 25 to 44 who've attained a college certificate or higher to 70% by 2025.

"It's an opportunity for us to talk about the statewide education attainment goal, and also gives us an opportunity for us to talk about ways we can partner, essentially in new ways, with our institutions, K-12 schools in our regions, community service organizations and business partners," Olson said. "We don't always talk with the same voice and that can sometimes be problematic."

According to data from Olson's office, the following is where the the attainment goal was in 2019 versus 2015:

  • Across the whole state, 62.2% of Minnesotans age 25-44 had attained at least a college certificate or higher in 2019, up from 57.5% in 2015.
  • Among the white population, 67.8% had reached the attainment level in 2019, up from 61.4% in 2015.
  • With the state's Asian population, 64.2% in the age range had attained a college credential in 2019, up from 62.7% in 2015.
  • In the multiracial population, 55.7% in the age range had attained at least a certificate in 2019, an increase from the 49.8% in 2015.
  • Among the state's black population, 37% had reached the attainment level, up from 35.4% in 2015.
  • In the Latinx population, 28.1% had attained at least a certificate in 2019, up from 23.6% in 2015.
  • For Native Americans, 28% in the age bracket had reached the attainment level in 2019, an increase from 21.4% in 2015.

On a more local basis, Cass County, home of Leech Lake Tribal College, has 32% of county residents in the 25-44 age bracket with an associate degree or higher, ranking 76th out of the 87 Minnesota counties. The rate of those with an associate degree or higher is 58.8% among white residents and 51% among residents of color.

In Cass County, the top five college destinations are Central Lakes College, BSU, Itasca Community College, Leech Lake Tribal College and the University of Minnesota Duluth.

In Beltrami County, home of Red Lake Tribal College, 42% of the residents have an associate degree or higher, coming in 50th out of the 87 counties. The rate of having an associate degree or higher is at 65% among white residents and 52% with residents of color. The top five college choices in the county are BSU, Northwest Technical College, the University of Minnesota, UMD and Minnesota State University Moorhead.

In Mahnomen County, home of White Earth Tribal and Community College, 26% of county residents in the age bracket have an associate degree or higher, which is the lowest in the state at 87th. The rate of those with an associate degree or higher is at 52% with white residents and 47% with residents of color.

The top five college destinations for Mahnomen County residents are Minnesota State Community and Technical College, Concordia College, MSUM, Central Lakes College and UMD.

After his appointment to the position last year, Olson said Tuesday the Native American attainment data in an annual report stood out.

"Looking through the data, I see the American Indian attainment," Olson said. "Not only was it the lowest in the state by far, but one of the largest gaps in the nation. We can no longer find that acceptable. That was a punch to the gut."

In his comments, Leech Lake Tribal College President Aymond Burns said Tuesday's event was an essential piece in improving the numbers.

"I think it's really important for Indian country, and just in this neck of the woods, that our voice gets heard in the capital as to what is important to our communities and what attainment means in our communities," Burns said. "I would venture to guess what we consider a successful student is different than what a granting agency in Washington D.C. thinks of a successful student."

"I don't want this to come from a deficit perspective, but I think it's important to understand where we're starting from, and where we've been," Olson said. "But let's look at what we can do differently, and what messages I can take back to St. Paul."

The estimated number of Native Americans with a college credential is 4,100, and to reach 70%, 6,120 more residents need to earn at least a certificate. Across the whole state, 110,730 more Minnesotans need to attain a college credential to reach the 70% goal.

Along with increasing the amount of those with post-secondary experience, Hermida said another goal is increasing the number of Native Americans with degrees, on top of certificates.

"We all know the career trajectory with an associate degree or higher is much different than a certificate," Hermida said. "One of the highest totals for certificates is among American Indians. There's nothing wrong with having a certificate, you get good paying jobs and it's definitely a stepping stone. But if people are only getting certificates, that's a problem. Because we need American Indian folks to be teachers, doctors and everything in between."

To continue improving the situation, Olson said conversations are taking place about the alignment of student pathways.

"We're doing that so our students understand the opportunities they're able to take advantage of in high school, related to post-secondary enrollment options," Olson said. "Exposure to those college opportunities and courses that set the path to higher education. We're talking to our K-12 partners to have those pathways."

Among younger Minnesotans, the total number of high school graduates was 58,367 in 2017, with 41,429 or 71% enrolling in post-secondary institutions. By ethnicity, the numbers broke down the following way:

  • There were 984 Native American high school graduates, and 474 or 48.2% were enrolled.
  • In 2017 there were 3,849 Hispanic high school graduates, and 2,102 or 54.6% were enrolled.
  • There were 5,542 black high school graduates in 2017, and 3,630 or 65.5% were enrolled.
  • In the state's Asian population, there were 4,063 high school graduates and 3,021 or 74.4% were enrolled.
  • In 2017 there were 43,929 high school graduates and 32,202 or 73.3% had enrolled in post-secondary education.

According to Olson, there were four other, similar events held prior to Tuesday in Mankato, Moorhead, Rochester and St. Cloud.

"The theme overall has been focusing on a cradle to career model," Olson said. "Where we're lining up opportunities. Where we're not just including higher education, but investments for early childhood education, and middle school, which can ultimately lead to higher education."