How we can redesign a more equitable higher education system in Minnesota

As college-aged students prepare to head back to school—or for distance learning— it’s important to remember that for People of Color and American Indian (POCI) students in Minnesota, the reality and experience of higher education is drastically different than that of their white peers. 

Policies and practices, deeply woven into the fabric of our country and state’s higher education institutions and systems, continue to create barriers to higher education for POCI students and perpetuate structural racism that leaves them out of opportunities to build a financially stable and purposeful future.

MnEEP’s recent research shows that Minnesota’s current higher education system and financial aid model serves as an obstacle to higher ed access and completion for POCI students  because it does not address or support their ongoing unique socioeconomic needs, resulting in deep racial disparities for degree completion that remain among the worst in the nation. 

Recent data shows only 36 percent of POCI students who graduated from Minnesota’s high schools in 2011 earned a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree within seven years, compared to 58 percent of white students. 

Minnesota is in the midst of a true college completion crisis for our growing number of POCI students that is harming students, families, communities, and businesses’ capacity to survive and thrive. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these inequities. 

If we are going to meet the Minnesota Legislature’s 2015 attainment goal of 70% of Minnesota adults ages 25 to 44 having attained a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2025, we need to make new and bold investments in higher education now, and in the coming years. 

Identifying the racial barriers

In 2018, the Joyce Foundation funded MnEEP’s research of an examination of Minnesota’s college finance models to determine how and where they contribute to racial inequities and ongoing racial disparities. 

We identified specific systemic limitations and racial barriers to college completion where the current state formula does not address the unique financial and work needs of POCI students. When the Minnesota higher education system was designed, the typical student was young, single, white, 18-22 years old, and from a middle or higher income two-parent household.

Yet Minnesota’s population has dramatically shifted in the last decade to include more racially, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse learners such as POCI students. A new, equitable model must address that POCI students are more likely to have lower family incomes; they are more likely to be older and often head of households; they are more likely to be transfer students; and they are more likely to go to two-year state colleges and attend college part-time.

MnEEP’s 2019 policy brief, “Reducing Racial Disparities in College Completion: the Case for an Equitable Higher Education Financial Aid System in Minnesota,” demonstrated that in order to address the systemic and structural racism in higher education in Minnesota, we must use a racial equity lens to:

  • Ask deeper questions on what racial disparities we need to eliminate;
  • Assess what groups are most adversely impacted by current policy and the Covid-19 pandemic;
  • Engage those most impacted by the policies; and
  • Understand how proposed solutions get to the root causes of the problem.

This essential work allowed us to build a foundational case for policymakers to take dramatic steps to redesign Minnesota’s overall approach to post-secondary opportunities that align with changing social and economic contexts for POCI in Minnesota. 

Over the coming months, we will be convening a multi-racial advocacy group to continue to push forth and implement new policies and practices to remove the current barriers to higher education for POCI students in Minnesota.  

Building a movement to advance race equity in higher ed

This year, MnEEP requested, and received, new support from the Joyce Foundation to turn our policy learnings from last year into a smart, assertive, and urgent action agenda for policy change at both the state and institution levels that produces racial equity in college access, credentialing, and completion. 

We recognize the advocacy field for this work in Minnesota must be strategically organized for increased awareness and moving forward new policies and practices that advance a racially equitable higher education system and financial aid model.

Over the coming months, we will be growing our College Race Equity Advocacy Advisory Council (CREAAC), a state-wide, multi-racial advocacy group to plan out, promote, and direct the new race equity in higher education policy agenda.

This work will include: 

  • Identifying what should be done to “think outside the box” for new POCI student support programs, meaningful finances and easier student movement across learning institutions that align to their social and economic challenges
  • Equipping our POCI communities and allies to lead reform efforts
  • Driving quicker action from our higher education systems to change policy and practice
  • Commanding the public narrative on a vision of what a new higher education structure, systems, culture, and practices can look like

We hope you will join us in our efforts to create a statewide movement in support of increasing race equity and college completion for POCI students.

To join us or to learn more about CREAAC and this essential work, please reach out to Leiataua Dr. Robert Jon Peterson at:

Posted in Higher Education, Our Impact, Our Voices, Research

Jon Peterson View posts by Jon Peterson

Leiataua Dr. Jon Peterson is a Native and Indigenous educator who is working with MnEEP as a consultant to provide ongoing coordination, support, and leadership to the EML Network and the Joyce Foundation Grant Project.
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