In the classic 1981 comedy “Stripes,” the Bill Murray character tells his rowdy pals from Chicago not to worry about credentials as they prepared to enter a Soviet-bloc country, mistakenly promising them that it would be just like “going into Wisconsin.”

In the classic 1981 comedy “Stripes,” the Bill Murray character tells his rowdy pals from Chicago not to worry about credentials as they prepared to enter a Soviet-bloc country, mistakenly promising them that it would be just like “going into Wisconsin.”

Crossing the boundary from high school to higher education ought to be as easy as driving to Wisconsin, or to use a more appropriate analogy, more like going from junior high to high school. The experience most definitely should not be a Cold War experience, like trying to get a visa for Cuba.

Too often, especially for students from families who have never made the trip, it’s like the latter. There are those brain-busting FAFSA forms, and even with financial aid, there are all kinds of incidental expenses. The barriers include confusion over entrance exams and admission standards, quandaries over how many colleges or institutions to apply for, all complicated in Minnesota by a depressing shortage of high school career counselors and professional help to make the transition. Not to mention language and cultural barriers for the tens of thousands of new Minnesotans from other nations who are definitely in need of the economic power that higher education provides. Once across the border, the retention and completion rates are disappointing.

This is what U.S. Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan had in mind last week when he told a joint meeting of top state education officials in Minneapolis that K-12 leaders and college system leaders “have frequently acted as if they occupy different universes.”

The good news, which Duncan described as “absolutely historic,” was that for the first time ever, two key groups representing the two universes were meeting together. The meeting was part of coordinated conventions by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), representing state institutions such as our Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) system, and the Council of Chief State School Officers, such as our Minnesota Department of Education.

These were among the key themes sounded by Duncan and other speakers at the conventions:
• K-12 leaders must get beyond the idea of the high school diploma as a destination. Duncan said President Obama’s national goal of regaining our rank as the most highly educated nation can only be achieved if K-12 systems transform themselves from “aiming at a high school diploma, to preparation for higher education.”
• Higher-ed leaders need to get a grip on the magnitude of the challenge: “We need to double our degree production without compromising quality, and in fact, the quality has to be better,” said SHEEO executive director Paul Lingenfelter.
• Get the eyes on the prize as early as possible. David Metzen, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, called for outreach efforts aimed at getting parents and their children to think much earlier about higher education.
• Setting attainment goals, state-by-state, is crucial. Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis said that national foundations are coming together behind the cause: “Suddenly it seems that higher education – specifically the commitment to increase college success – is where the action is.”

So what do we do next?
Minnesota needs to start in the 2011 legislative session by establishing, through law or official resolution, that end-of-decade goal for a 75 percent attainment rate, or something close to that. Our current attainment rate for young adults stands at about 50 percent.

A recent study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce ranked Minnesota second in the nation, behind the District of Columbia, in the projected need for workers with post-secondary degrees or certificates.

The Georgetown study predicts that by 2018, our state economy will add about 150,000 jobs requiring education and training beyond high school but only about 30,000 jobs that can be filled by dropouts or high school graduates. Figuring in retirements, there will be about 620,000 vacancies for those with post-secondary credentials and about 280,000 for high school graduates or dropouts. In all, about 70 percent of jobs will require training beyond high school.

Our Legislature already has set similar lofty goals, for renewable fuels as a percentage of our energy consumption and for achieving 100 percent statewide broadband access. The educational attainment goal is at least as important. A ready work force and an informed citizenry – above-average children, innovative and progressive businesses, and knowledgeable people – lies very close to the essence of our highly successful Minnesota brand. And we need to restore the integrity of that brand.