What's on the state higher-ed chief's legislative radar

To get an idea of what folks are talking about in higher education this legislative session, I talked to Larry Pogemiller, former state legislator and new director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

His main message:

"I don’t anticipate major activity this year. ... We'll be building the foundations for the legislature to do something dramatic next year."

That's when Pogemiller said the legislature, helped by the state's higher-ed leaders, will need to address a few issues.

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The main ones:

  • Student debt and financial literacy. "We need to encourage earlier savings for people of all income levels," he said. Minnesota should look at how other states and countries encourage that and possibly adopt measures such as higher interest rates for savings, tax- and employer incentives and related language that is "built into contracts for employment."

  • Lower education costs. He's not talking about tuition or spending caps -- "I don't think they're very effective," he said -- but about offering more financial aid to students, including mid-career workers and professionals. Meanwhile, higher-ed should cut costs by sharing administrative resources and making better use of online education, among other things. The two, he said, are linked: "You can free up more money for financial aid if you can show legislators that you’re bringing the cost structure down." After I mentioned that one student representative wanted the State Grant made more stable -- the amount it provides depends in part on the politically volatile federal Pell Grant awards -- Pogemiller said, "We need to make an estimation of where the feds are headed in coming months so we can have a system structured in a way Minnesotans have access."

  • Teacher prep and the achievement gap. Pogemiller said raising entrance standards for teacher-education programs would help students come better prepared for college. "We'll (also) need a fairly sophisticated reworking of the relationship between K-12 and higher education," he told me. "I think we need to get a much more seamless" transition for students as they leave one system and enter the other.

This session, Pogemiller doesn't see the legislature addressing for-profit institutions -- as MPR's Tim Post has reported -- but thinks Minnesota will consider establishing accountability measures for all of higher education "over the long term."

He told me:

"As there’s pressure at the federal level to bring some kind of accountability to the for-profit side, I think we're going to see the same things coming to the nonprofit side, the traditional system. I think it'll be more about measurement (of productivity and student success) and the cost of getting outcomes. ... But this will take a couple of years to develop."

He said improving MnSCU's credit-transfer rate is "pretty much a continuous issue." Because MnSCU says it has been working on that and made good progress, he said, "I don't know if any particular legislative initiative would be overly significant right now. But someone may feel they need to propose a nudge."

Pogemiller said he's hoping to beef up the Higher Education Advisory Council, a body of college and K-12 leaders created years ago by the legislature but which Pogemiller said hasn't been very relevant in Minnesota's higher-ed policy world. He said he wants to help it lay out a focused agenda for the state so it can become a real player.

He told me:

"When (council members) do meet, they should set a vision for higher ed -- point out cost-containment objectives, attainment objectives, things like that. I hope that sometime this summer, as a lead-up to the major initiatives, this group would start to put out something."