City Strategies to Promote College Success Featured in New NLC Action Guide Series

As the culmination of a two-year initiative focused on supporting city efforts to increase local college completion rates, NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families has published a series of three municipal action guides on postsecondary educational success with support from Lumina Foundation. The following guides are now available on the NLC website:

Also with support from Lumina Foundation, NLC commissioned an analysis by Professor Kenneth K. Wong of Brown University on the role that mayors are playing to support college access and completion in their cities.

Why Postsecondary?  Why Now?

In the last few years, municipal leaders in more than a dozen cities have launched new, multi-sector collaborations to dramatically increase the proportion of residents in their communities who obtain postsecondary degrees and credentials. Working with institutions of higher education, K-12 school districts, workforce development agencies, community organizations and local business associations, cities are constructing systems of comprehensive and targeted support for students (both those who enroll just after graduating high school as well as adults who have earned some college credit but have not completed their degree or certificate program). Many of these partnerships focus on community colleges, which provide widespread access to postsecondary education and training – particularly for low-income and first-generation college students – but often struggle with low completion rates.

Why the sudden emphasis on postsecondary education? In large part, cities are responding to research showing that college attainment rates play a key role in their economic development strategies. For instance, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University estimates that nearly two-thirds of jobs will require at least some postsecondary education by 2018. The Center has also published studies highlighting substantial returns to higher education:  the average individual with a bachelor’s degree is likely to earn 84 percent more over his or her lifetime than an individual with a high school diploma. 

For these and other reasons, policymakers and foundations are leading a national movement to increase postsecondary success. President Obama has set a goal for the U.S. to have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. Philanthropies such as the Lumina Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working with NLC and selected cities on initiatives that are aligned with this national college completion goal.

Getting Started

NLC’s guide on Municipal Leadership for Postsecondary Success: Getting Started – the first in the new three-part series – outlines a set of action steps for city leaders who are concerned about low college completion rates and want to identify and advance solutions. Key initial steps involve identifying local college access and success efforts already underway and engaging the core institutional stakeholders, as well as students and their families. Oftentimes, community and technical colleges, public and private universities, school districts, community organizations, workforce boards and chambers of commerce are working in isolation rather than developing a more coordinated strategy to provide students with the supports and services they need to graduate with a postsecondary credential. 

City officials can convene these entities to establish a structure that can guide and sustain cross-sector college success efforts and set measurable outcomes and benchmarks. They can facilitate data-sharing agreements and development of citywide action plans. They can also build and sustain momentum as Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has done by emphasizing his goal to double college completion rates in State of the City addresses, an annual Mayor’s Education Week, and periodic reports on the city’s progress.

Scanning the Landscape of College Success Efforts

The second guide – Conducting a Scan of Local Efforts to Promote Postsecondary Success, which was co-authored by OMG Center for Collaborative Learning – provides an in-depth look at the important information gathering work that must precede a comprehensive postsecondary initiative. In most communities, many entities are involved in addressing the key obstacles to access and completion, from inadequate academic preparation and financial barriers to lack of information on college options and application processes and limited supports for students enrolled in a postsecondary program. 

An inventory of the various services, policies and partnerships that impact students can reveal major challenges and opportunities within the existing network of supports. For instance, Success Boston, a broad-based partnership championed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, has identified key areas requiring enhanced intervention, such as alignment of high school and college curricula, financial aid, and access to jobs that are related to students’ career interests and do not prevent them from completing their coursework. 

Cities are in a unique position to fill gaps in the wraparound services that help students meet their needs for housing, health care, transportation and child care. These services can mean the difference between credential attainment and dropping out. City leaders can also broker partnerships between colleges, economic development agencies and the business community to ensure that students receive the training and skills demanded by local employers.

Using and Sharing Data

The final guide in the series – Using and Sharing Data to Improve Postsecondary Success – suggests a sequence of actions that municipal leaders can take to understand the overall college access and completion picture in their cities, including where students exit the educational pipeline and what factors appear to affect student outcomes. The publication offers guidance on various data sources that cities can use to establish baseline measures of success and set ambitious goals for improvement. It also highlights city examples such as the Mesa Counts on College initiative, through which the City of Mesa, Ariz., has worked with public schools and Mesa Community College to analyze institutional and National Student Clearinghouse data on high school graduation rates and postsecondary enrollment, persistence and completion patterns.

New Roles for Mayors

Complementing the action guide series is a paper by Dr. Kenneth K. Wong, the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair for Education Policy at Brown University, on Mayoral Leadership for Postsecondary Success and Career Readiness. Professor Wong has conducted extensive research on education politics and policy, including mayoral involvement in the governance of public schools at the K-12 level. This paper compares mayoral engagement in the K-12 and postsecondary sectors and highlights five new strategies that mayors in 10 selected cities are using to improve postsecondary success rates:

  • Building and sustaining public-private partnerships;
  • Interconnecting with local talent attraction/retention, workforce development, and economic development initiatives;
  • Leveraging data to target support;
  • Increasing college access and completion supports; and
  • Leveraging support from nonprofit intermediaries.

Most of the cities identified in the paper are engaged in two or more of these strategies. In San Antonio, for instance, Mayor Julián Castro convenes a P16Plus Council of community leaders to focus on student needs across the educational spectrum, established the one-stop Café College resource center, and continued collaborating with the San Antonio Education Partnership to expand college access and boost completion.

Details: To learn more about NLC’s postsecondary success initiatives or to request a copy of one of the municipal action guides, please contact Marjorie Cohen at (202) 626-3052 or To learn more about Lumina Foundation’s investments to expand access and success in education beyond high school, visit