Next wave of thriving cities

By Jamie Merisotis –

The 21st century is shaping up to be a golden age for cities, with growth in U.S. municipalities projected to create an even stronger urban majority in coming decades. Some localities will ascend as exemplars of flourishing communities in this new era. And they won’t necessarily be the places you’d expect.

We’ve all heard about the typical trendsetters like Denver, Austin, and Seattle—known for their cultural magnetism, highly educated creative classes, and strong job markets. But lesser-known places, like Columbus, Indiana, Buffalo, New York, and Santa Ana, California, are emerging as leaders in the “grow your own talent” movement, and showing other communities how it’s done.

Cities will rise or descend over the next several years based on their pool of talent, the critical human capital needed to fuel this century’s workforce. The oft-cited places as gathering spots for young professionals and other workers have done well to attract talent from other places.

But what the future exemplars have mastered is more complex – and, in essence, more critical to success in the next era of cities. They’ve developed ways to cultivate local talent so that homegrown residents have better access to opportunities.

Take, for example, Columbus, Indiana, a mid-sized city in southeastern Indiana that’s home to a Fortune 500 diesel engine manufacturer, Cummins, and is sharply focused on increasing success for students beginning in pre-kindergarten and continuing through college. A coalition of local business, education and civic leaders in the city meets bimonthly to discuss challenges and formulate solutions for addressing them. As one example, employers discuss workforce needs, and educators across the spectrum adapt their curricula to ensure students are equipped to thrive from the early grades.

This collaboration has resulted in transformative programs, including iGrad, initiative that connects at-risk 8th through 12th grade students in area middle and high schools with college coaches and volunteer tutors who teach them problem-solving and time management; help them with homework; connect them with career mentors; and assist them in finding other necessary support services outside of school.

The goal is to urge these students to persist through graduation, and iGrad has set a bold goal of achieving 100 percent graduation rate by 2017. Early results look promising. After just two years of the program, the countywide graduation rate has increased by nearly 5 percentage points to 90 percent, and the percent of students who drop out has almost been cut in half.

Other cities, like Santa Ana, about 40 minutes south of Los Angeles, and Buffalo, have made the cultivation and growth of their homegrown talent top priorities. Santa Ana’s commitment to talent—where city limit signs say “Education First”—and Buffalo’s leadership in the groundbreaking Say Yes to Education initiative are emblematic of this deep commitment. In Buffalo, for example, the coordinated wraparound services provided through Say Yes to Education are credited with, among other things, bumping the high school graduation rate from 48 percent to 54 percent in a year.

These cities’ efforts showcase what the places poised for success in the next era do well. They set goals and work collaboratively to achieve them. They listen to employers’ needs and provide multiple pathways for all types of people to be successful. And they create a sense of place, as Columbus has done through its innovative architecture and city planning.

To be sure, all cities have gaps to fill when it comes to leveling the playing field of opportunity. But those cool-factor cities that have thrived most at drawing talent from elsewhere also tend to have the biggest equity gaps. Consider that more than half of all out-of-state transplants living in Austin hold college degrees, while just 37 percent of native Texans in the city do. And according to a recent National Journal analysis, this is true across the board: three-quarters of the cities that rank the highest for college attainment gaps between blacks and whites also rank among the top half for white residents’ college attainment.

That’s not to downplay the importance of talent attraction, or to discredit the meaningful investments that the hipper, better-known places have made to position themselves as destinations for wage earners. Indeed, Denver’s College Attainment Network, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and The Road-Map Project in Seattle have all focused on improving outcomes for their communities’ disadvantaged, low-income, and minority populations. The point is that cities’ ability to prosper over the next century will depend on more than just their aptitude to attract talent from the outside in; they also need to grow it from the ground up.

Our nation’s success also depends on this. Consider that by 2025, close to two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary attainment, and at current pace we’re projected to fall short of hitting that goal by five million workers. If the U.S. is going to thrive in the global economy, it’s simply not enough to shuffle talent from one location to the next. We have to focus on equipping more residents with essential skills and knowledge.

Leaders are paving the way to do that in some unexpected locations. Other cities should look to those places for inspiration – and follow suit.

Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to increasing Americans’ college attainment.



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