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Education, growing economy, good health. They’re all connected.

Commentary by HealthPartners President and CEO Mary Brainerd

This commentary was originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Sunday, September 11, 2016.

By Mary Brainerd, HealthPartners President and CEO

This spring, I had the honor of speaking about the importance of higher education at a fundraiser at Century College and later at a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (Minnesota State) system event. You might ask: Why would someone in health care be talking about education? The answer is that if you care about health you really need to care about education.

image: Mary Brainerd, HealthPartners President and CEO

Research from the University of Wisconsin shows that medical care explains only about 20 percent of length and quality of life. Diet, exercise, tobacco and alcohol use contribute to about 30 percent. The biggest impact on health (some 40 percent) relates to socio-economic factors — factors related to communities. Even more compelling is a research finding from the National Institutes of Health that calls out graduation from high school as the single best predictor of future health. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Education is key to future employment, income, access to healthy food and home ownership – all of which connect to health.

This research shows health is both an individual and community attribute. There is also an important connection between a healthy community and a thriving economy. We are fortunate to have a robust economy here. Minnesota is home to 16 of the Fortune 500’s largest US corporations, and we have literally thousands of small businesses flourishing. Our unemployment rate is the lowest in nearly 15 years. We have a range of career opportunities and 40 percent of our population has a college degree.

The Brookings Institution says our educated workforce is our No. 1 economic strength. Because of the workforce, our economy thrives. But, there are challenges ahead. The number of working-age people is shrinking. In the 1990s, the number of working-age people grew at a rate of 14 percent. In the next 15 years, the rate will shrink to minus 2 percent.

To address the workforce shortages ahead, we need to make sure that all Minnesotans have what it takes to get a good job — and what it takes is education. Today, only about eight in 10 students in our state graduate from high school. Among African American and Latino students, the rate is less than 60 percent. We simply must support every Minnesotan in using their unique talents, skills and abilities – and bringing them to work. That is rewarding individually, builds our economy and leads to a healthy community. It’s all connected.

Our opportunity is to ensure access and achievement in education and to match skills and training with employer needs. A key partner in that effort is Minnesota State. Put simply, education is the best foundation for healthy families and thriving communities.

Mary Brainerd is president and CEO of HealthPartners. She and her husband recently endowed a scholarship at Century College.

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