A Matter of Degrees Increasing College Attainment—Workforce Development Strategy

Kathy Moore Cowan

Early in 2012, in an effort to develop a deeper understanding of the complex factors creating long-term unemployment conditions and identify promising workforce development solutions, the Federal Reserve held 29 roundtables across the country, including four in the Eighth District. One common theme heard during these meetings was that the American workforce lacks the skills needed by present and future employers.

It is estimated that 68 percent of all jobs created between 2010 and 2018 will require a college degree. However, only 40 percent of America’s current adult population (age 25 and older) are college graduates. America ranks 10th in the world in college attainment, trailing countries such as Canada (56 percent), South Korea (56 percent) and Japan (54 percent). The Tennessee Higher Education productivity team predicts that by 2018 more than half of all jobs in Tennessee will require some form of postsecondary credentials. Only 29.9 percent of Tennessee’s adult population holds an associate’s degree or higher, compared to the national average of 37.2 percent. While there is some debate about whether a four-year college degree is worth the cost, many people believe that the future of American prosperity relies on a better-educated workforce.

It is not surprising, then, that the president has set a goal for the U.S. to reclaim the lead in college graduation rates by 2020. Tennessee’s governor aims to double the number of the state’s residents with a college degree or certification by 2025. And the Memphis metropolitan area intends to raise the college completion rate by 1 percent (8,002) by September 2014. Here is how the Memphis metropolitan area is working to reach this goal.

Metropolitan Memphis, Tenn.

In 2008, CEOs for Cities introduced extensive research that outlined three vital areas—talent, poverty and the environment—that could have a tremendous economic impact on every city in America. The research showed that educational attainment is the biggest predictor of success for cities and metropolitan areas today. Specifically, it showed that 58 percent of a city’s success, as measured by per-capita income, is attributable to the percentage of the adult population with a college degree.

Rankings of 51 metropolitan cities placed Memphis at #48 in college attainment, with only 23.7 percent of the adult population earning a college degree. Recognizing the challenge—and the opportunity—for the metro area, Leadership Memphis launched the Memphis Talent Dividend (MTD), a collaborative of more than 100 stakeholders from the eight-county region who are working together to increase the percentage of college attainment in the area by 1 percent. If this goal is met, CEOs for Cities estimates a $1 billion economic impact for the region.

MTD is focusing on three strategic areas: 1) helping students prepare for and successfully enroll in college; 2) helping students stay in college and complete their studies; and 3) helping workers return to college to earn a degree. The group has organized six specialized collaboratives—youth organization, community, faith, business, media and higher education—that are open to anyone who wants to work toward reaching the goal. Each collaborative has an individual focus and is working to increase five key areas: 1) high school graduation rate, 2) college enrollment rate, 3) college continuation rate, 4) college completion rate, and 5) college graduate retention rate.

David Williams, president/CEO of Leadership Memphis, said, “When you look at the top 51 largest metro areas, Memphis is ranked #1 in poverty and #48 in college attainment. The correlation is obvious. Over 200,000 people in the Memphis metro area started but never finished college. Leadership Memphis and our 100 Memphis Talent Dividend partners know we can make a difference by helping them finish their postsecondary education and improve our workforce at the same time.”

That’s where Graduate Memphis comes in. Housed in Memphis’ Benjamin Hooks Central Library, Graduate Memphis is a free college resource center designed to increase postsecondary attainment among adults. Funded by a $1.7 million grant from the Plough Foundation, it is staffed by a coordinator, three staff college advisors, and college advisors on loan to the center by local colleges and universities. Counselors meet one-on-one with prospective students, and telephone counselors are available. Workshops on relevant topics are held monthly, and a web site provides links to resources focused on the needs of adults returning to school. Since its opening in July, Graduate Memphis has reached more than 400 potential students, and 20 participants have enrolled in a local college.

MTD is also attempting to win $1 million for the metropolitan area as part of the National Talent Dividend contest sponsored by CEOs for Cities and the Kresge and Lumina foundations. More than 50 cities have registered for the competition, including three additional cities in the Federal Reserve’s Eighth District—St. Louis, Louisville and Little Rock. The prize will be awarded in September 2014 to the metropolitan area with the greatest increase in the number of postsecondary degrees granted per capita over a three-year period. If all registered cities are successful in raising college attainment by 1 percent, CEOs for Cities calculates a $124 billion increase in national earnings per year.

Other programs are helping Memphis reach the college-attainment goal (e.g., Memphis/Shelby Achieves). The area is preparing for its future and by all indications the future is here. It will take the collective work of all communities across the country to create the “talent” that is required to meet the challenging and ever-changing needs of the global economy.

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