Industry is playing an unprecedented role in the discussions, said Mary Rothchild, director for workforce development for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
State funding for higher education has declined dramatically in the past decade. According to MnSCU data, in 2002 the state covered more than 66 percent of students' tuition. By 2012, that had dropped to about 40 percent.
So Minnesota leaders are becoming increasingly interested in working with industry, she said. They're seeing it more as a partner — and potential source of education funding.
The education of choice for many Minnesota employers is becoming vocational. They're seeing it as a faster, less expensive way for the state to provide them with skilled workers, Rothchild said.
"There's very little interest by state legislatures in investing in higher education unless they see a return on investment" in the form of skilled workers, she said. "And the return on investment is dictated by the private sector."
National leaders are changing their attitude, too.
A recent Georgetown University report widely quoted in Minnesota higher-education circles says that by 2020, 74 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require some form of post-secondary education. Half of those jobs will not require a four-year degree.
Several years ago, President Barack Obama began suggesting that students don't necessarily need a bachelor's degree — just some form of post-secondary education, from a short-term certificate to a two-year degree.
"All he said the first four years was 'community college,'" said Minnesota Commissioner of Higher Education Larry Pogemiller.
Although some state lawmakers have long advocated for vocational education, he said, Obama played a large role in raising its profile here.
The push began building in Minnesota in 2012, when MnSCU and the state Chamber of Commerce spent months asking businesses around the state what skills they're looking for. They wanted MnSCU to make its college programs more relevant to employers.