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Ohio Leaders Win $1 Million Prize to Spur Cities' College-Going


Guest post by Jamaal Abdul-Alim.


Education leaders in several Ohio cities believe boosting the number of adults with a four-year college degree will lift their communities as a whole. 

As part of a multicity initiative, the cities launched high school-college dual enrollment programs and offered college-entrance exam preparation and practice. At the postsecondary level, they stressed the need for students to take a full load to complete college on time.

Today, members of the group—the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education— collected a $1 million prize awarded by the National Talent Dividend Network, a project launched by CEOs for Cities. The group won after one of its member cities, Akron, emerged as the winner of the prize.

"We had already been talking about educational attainment," said Robert Reffner, the chairman of the council, the Cleveland-based group that led Ohio's college-graduation initiative, said today at a ceremony to announce the prize.

"But when they threw the Talent Dividend Prize on the table, it catalyzed our thinking around it," Reffner said.

Organizers of the prize said it was meant to spur action around the one thing that explains most of income inequality in any given city: The extent to which a city's adult population has earned college degrees.

"This is not a beauty contest," said Joseph Cortright, an economist who served as senior research adviser for the prize. "This is a contest driven by results, and results that we know have a tangible economic benefit for kids and the communities in which they live."

The Talent Dividend Million Dollar Prize is the brainchild of Carol Coletta, the vice president of community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation, back when she served as president of CEOs for Cities, and William Moses, the managing director of education at the Kresge Foundation, which funded the prize.

It grew out of analysis by Cortright that found that a percentage-point increase in the four-year degree attainment rate in a given city was associated with an income increase of $750 per capita.

Fifty-seven metropolitan statistical areas—a geographic designation for cities—competed for the prize. Cortwright said the prize appears to have yielded results in that there was a 7.6 percent increase in college degrees awarded in the areas between the 2009-2010 academic year—the base year for the prize period—and 2012-13.

More specifically, the competing areas collectively awarded 69,000 more associate degrees and 55,000 more bachelor's degrees during the competition period, after being adjusted for population growth, Cortright said.

Individual figures for the competing areas were not immediately accessible, but a list obtained by Education Week states that Akron achieved a 20.2 percent increase between 2010 and 2013.

Jim Tressel, president of Youngstown State University, said it's ultimately important to look at more than just the sheer number of degrees awarded in a region.

"Just the number of degrees is not going to be simply the solution to many of our challenges," Tressel said. "But we need to have that rigor, we need to create that quality so that our people can compete in the world."

Members of the Northeast Ohio Talent Dividend said the $1 million prize will be split among organizations in their network, which includes entities in Cleveland, Akron, and Canton.

Derran Wimer, the executive director of the Summit Education Initiative, which focuses on P-16 issues in Summit County, Ohio, said the prize will benefit middle and high school students in the region because it "catalyzed a conversation that we probably weren't having before, which is being college-ready versus college-eligible."

[CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly spelled Mr. Cortwright's last name and incorrectly labeled the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.]

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