Lumina Foundation President Jamie P. Merisotis: Why City Officials Must Lead Efforts to Increase College Attainment

May 7, 2012

by Jamie P. Merisotis

In this economy - which is becoming more global, more complex and more demanding every day - college-level learning is a precious commodity. In truth, it's all but indispensable. These days, anyone who aspires to a middle-class lifestyle needs a solid postsecondary degree or credential.

And college isn't just a personal necessity. A well-educated populace is vital to the economic progress and social stability of any city or region - indeed, to the nation as a whole. For that reason, one could argue that the single most important task of any city leader who seeks to ensure progress and prosperity over the long term is to boost college success among the citizens he or she serves.

And that means all citizens.  This nation needs to ensure that millions more people - people of all ages, all backgrounds, all income levels - enroll and succeed in college.

Labor experts project that, by the end of the decade, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. Right now, less than 40 percent of the working-age population has at least an associate degree. This degree gap exists in virtually every city, and it poses a serious threat to our future. What's more, this degree gap reflects a persistent and pernicious equity gap. Nationally, according to 2010 Census figures, the degree-attainment rate among white, working-age Americans is 43 percent. Among African-Americans, it's 27 percent. Among Latinos, it's only 19 percent.

These troubling gaps in educational attainment aren't new; they've endured for decades, and we ignore them at our collective peril. Consider the nation's Latino population. The median age for Hispanics in this country is 27; for everyone else, it's nearly 40. That means our nation's schools are already serving a disproportionately large population of Latino students. And, since Latinos represent the fastest-growing segment of the national population, these numbers are sure to increase in coming years.

The simple truth is, Latino students represent our future - the future of nearly every city and of our nation as a whole. We must do all we can to ensure that they get the education they need to make that future bright. And America's mayors must play a pivotal role in that effort, because the nation's metropolitan areas are natural hubs for economic and social change.

Employers are invested - financially and otherwise - in the cities they choose as locations for their businesses, and an educated labor force is a powerful draw. More educated cities tend to be healthier, greener, more economically and culturally vibrant. What's more, statistics show that increasing numbers of Americans are living in metropolitan regions. All of this helps explain why the nation's cities must be centers of action to increase college attainment.

And there's another reason: Cities are fertile ground for vibrant collaborations that can really boost college success - partnerships that include all of the relevant stakeholders: that is, political, business, education, philanthropic, faith-based, and community leaders. In most metro regions, these stakeholders are already working together on other issues, and the mayor is typically at the center of those collaborations, acting as both a catalyst and a connector.

Also, as the city's chief elected representative, the mayor has a very visible bully pulpit - and the responsibility for using it. After all, when broadly defined, a mayor's job is to help ensure the welfare and prosperity of the city's residents, to be accountable to them. What better way to demonstrate accountability than to push for increased levels of college success ... the type of success that can improve the quality of life for all residents?

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, a private foundation committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college - especially low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. Lumina works toward one goal: ensuring that, by 2025, 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality postsecondary degrees or credentials.


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NLC Supporting City Leadership for Postsecondary Success

For the past several years, NLC, through its Institute for Youth, Education and Families, has provided technical assistance and peer networking opportunities to selected cities that are working to increase local college completion rates.  Fifteen cities participate in NLC's Postsecondary Success City Action Network supported by Lumina Foundation.  Member cities include Berkeley, Calif.; Corpus Christi, Texas; Glendale, Ariz.; Hialeah, Fla.; Las Vegas; Memphis, Tenn.; Mobile, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; New Haven, Conn.; Oakland, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Pasadena, Calif.; San Antonio; St. Louis; and St. Paul, Minn.  The network's second cross-site meeting will take place next week in Memphis.  To learn more about the network, please contact Marjorie Cohen at (202) 626-3052 or cohen@nlc.org.

In addition, NLC continues to work with four cities - New York City; Mesa, Ariz.; Riverside, Calif.; and San Francisco - selected for the Communities Learning in Partnership initiative supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  As these efforts progress, NLC will share lessons learned for how city leaders can help more residents attain postsecondary degrees and credentials.  To learn more about this initiative, please contact Carmella Mazzotta at (202) 626-3009 ormazzotta@nlc.org