Baltimore needs more college graduates

Baltimore residents lag in college attainment necessary to secure city's economic future

May 26, 2011|By Jamie Merisotis

As thousands of students turn their tassels at college commencement ceremonies across Maryland this month, a spotlight is being placed on the critical connection between college success and future economic prosperity. It's one of the most important issues facing Baltimore, and the statistics paint a challenging picture.

Baltimore is a great American city, and there is momentum to applaud on several fronts. But the harsh reality is that the city's economy will almost certainly falter in the years ahead without an influx of considerably more college graduates.

A recent analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that more than 60 percent of all U.S. jobs will require postsecondary education by 2018. Unfortunately, the percentage of adults (25-64) in Baltimore with a two- or four-year degree is below 32 percent. That is a big gap, and it puts the region at a serious competitive disadvantage.

CEOs for Cities President Carol Coletta recently said, "research shows that 58 percent of any city's success, as measured by per capita income, can be explained by the percentage of college graduates in its population." Some economists suggest that's a conservative estimate. But whatever the percentage, it's clear that improved educational attainment is critical to Baltimore's future.

To put a finer point on the issue, it is estimated that a modest 1 percent increase in the number of Baltimore college graduates would add $2 billion to the region's economy. That fact alone certainly elevates higher education attainment to one of the most important factors in the city's long-term economic growth plans.

Improved college attainment is also a pocketbook issue of the highest order for local residents. Nationally, college graduates earn $20,000 more in annual median salary than those without degrees, and that gap is likely to widen. Coming out of this recession, the vast majority of new jobs require higher skills. So, people without college degrees will soon find it harder to gain entry into the middle class, and the probability of their being poor will almost certainly increase.

The outlook sounds gloomy, but we at Lumina see things differently. As the nation's largest private foundation committed solely to enrolling and graduating more college students, we see a tremendous amount of opportunity in Baltimore. That's why we are encouraging city leaders to join us in what we call Goal 2025. The aim is to ensure that 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality college degrees or credentials by 2025. It's an audacious goal, but it is absolutely crucial.

Lumina is already working with great organizations across Maryland on this important endeavor. Since 2000, Lumina has provided nearly $500,000 to grantees based in Baltimore. But money alone will not solve this crisis. We need new policies that improve degree attainment. We need employers to invest more in tuition reimbursement. We need higher education institutions to offer more certification programs. These steps, and many more like them, are needed to create greater individual opportunity and economic vitality in Baltimore.

The work won't be easy, but there is some low-hanging fruit worth highlighting. More than 650,000 adults (roughly 21 percent) in Maryland started college but never earned a degree. Many are only a few credits short of completion. So, we are working to support programs that can help them finish what they started. This work holds tremendous promise, and it's just one example of how Goal 2025 can be achieved.

We also need to strengthen our higher education system in various ways. We need to expect a higher level of efficiency and productivity from our colleges and universities. We need to find ways to raise revenue from sources other than students' wallets and tie tuition increases to direct education expenses, rather than non-academic needs. And we need to remember that a four-year degree is not right for everyone. There are many degrees and credentials, and just as many paths to obtain them.

The good news is that Baltimore is already well positioned in many ways. There are great schools educating students, promising growth sectors creating jobs and a positive momentum that will likely propel the entire region to greater things. But nothing is certain. If the city's next chapter is going to read well, it will be because Baltimore focused on greater postsecondary education attainment to build the local labor pool and beat out other states for the jobs of the future.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. His email is president@luminafoundation.org.

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