Business group wants St. Louis to have more college grads | St. Louis Public Radio

Business group wants St. Louis to have more college grads

Apr 29, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon:David Letterman isn’t the only one paying attention to Top 10 lists.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been working for a while on its Top 10 by 20 initiative, a push to bring the state into the leaders in educational achievement by the year 2020.

Now, the St. Louis Regional Chamber is convening a talent summit to bring together groups that can help push the area into the top 10 among the nation’s big metropolitan areas in terms of the percentage of people with college degrees.

Its goal, to be discussed at the summit Thursday, is to reach that group by the year 2025. To get there, the chamber says, St. Louis would have to add 75,000 degree recipients above its current trend line. Joe Reagan, the chamber’s  president and CEO, says the goal is not only attainable – it’s indispensable if the region wants to grow.

“We can’t afford to leave anyone behind,” he told the Beacon. “This country is in a long-term labor shortage, and our region is in a long-term labor shortage. We have to reach individuals and families and help them cross the goal line of quality education.

“There’s no single way to get there. There’s no silver bullet. But there is no surer path to economic prosperity than education attainment.”

Reaching the top 10 doesn’t necessarily mean a new project, Reagan said. He knows of the other efforts going on in the St. Louis area to improve education in general and college attendance in particular.

What he wants the chamber to do, he says, is help coordinate those programs and show community leaders how they can play a role to let the public know how important their top 10 goal is, demonstrate ways to help adults earn their degree and share information so that groups work more closely together.

“This is not a St. Louis-only issue or problem,” Reagan says. “This is a national challenge. We have the opportunity to use all of our assets – amazing colleges and universities, amazing employers investing in jobs and one of the fastest growing markets in information technology and research.

“We can’t do things the same way we have done them and expect different result. That’s the definition of insanity. We have to do things differently.”

Adds Lee Kaplan, chief administrative officer at Enterprise Holdings and a key player in the effort:

“We have a tremendous number of resources and initiatives that already focus on the good work around college attainment. The best way for us to move up in our ranking is to create a movement around all these resources that exist. It’s to create measurements to hold ourselves accountable and to change the way we do business in a way that brings all these resources together to create a unified movement. “

Reagan wants to make sure that no one thinks the chamber is saying that a college degree is necessary for everyone. He pointed to the recent announcement by Monsanto of a major expansion in Chesterfield that could bring nearly 700 jobs to the area.

“The breadth and the depth of what is needed for that expansion is not just about Ph.D. bioscientists,” he said. “It’s about lab techs and IT programmers and application developers.

“This is one area we have lot of assets to build on. We are in a very strong position to start from. But we can’t rest on that position.”

By the numbers

Reagan and the Regional Chamber have the numbers to back up his argument.

A list of the top 20 metropolitan regions in the United States from 2009 to 2011, ranked by population, puts St. Louis at 19th, just after Tampa and ahead of Baltimore. But when they are listed in terms of the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees or better, St. Louis rises to 14th, after Los Angeles but ahead of Houston.

Building on that foundation, the chamber says that reaching the top 10 will help set St. Louis apart from other regions competing for educated workers and the companies hiring them.

And those companies are in fields where St. Louis would like to increase its prominence. Figures from the chamber show that in selected health-care and science occupations, two-thirds of the workers have at least a bachelor’s degree. In select financial and information service jobs, that number rises to 80 percent.

It’s not just the region as a whole that will benefit from a higher level of college degrees – it’s the individuals themselves. Median earnings of St. Louis area workers show that a graduate or professional degree translates into pay of $62,148 a year. A bachelor’s degree brings in $48,173, while some college translates to a salary of $33,245, a high school degree means a salary of $27,498 and those who drop out without finishing high school earn only $18,922.

The push to enter the top 10, the chamber says, means that by 2025, the St. Louis area needs to have 790,000 people with a bachelor’s degree or better – 39 percent of the adult population. If current trends continue, the number in 13 years will be only 717,000, or 35.4 percent.

Coordinating efforts

Kaplan noted that while Enterprise hires about 7,000 college graduates each year, not many of those are in the St. Louis area, so for his company, improving local college attainment levels is not a question of finding qualified workers.

Instead, he says, it’s about making the region that his company calls home more attractive in relation to other middle-of-the-country areas like Chicago and Dallas.

“For us,” Kaplan said, “more than the challenge of hiring college graduates today is building the community’s college attainment level so that businesses are attracted to the community and its economic vibrancy grows at the same time.”

Reagan and Kaplan said that the chamber has been working for a few years to try to figure out the best way to improve the region’s standing in terms of workers with college degrees. In recent months, he said, it has stepped up efforts to see which groups are working on what part of the puzzle, and how  their efforts can be coordinated to make them most effective.

“What are those pilot projects that are going on,” he said, “the neighborhood approaches or the approaches in STEM education or college completion or early childhood? We’re bringing all that together so the community can learn more and share that and find out what the best practices are.”

One effort that Reagan said can help the chamber reach its goal is improved cooperation and coordination among the area’s community colleges and universities.

Reagan points to the joint engineering program started many years ago by the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University as an example that has been praised nationally as a good way for schools to work together.

“It is really special when you have a public university like UM-St. Louis have an articulation agreement with a private major research university like Washington U.,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in every metropolitan area in this country, and that’s just one program, but it’s a significant program that shows what is possible if schools can work together and across boundaries and silos.”

He also cited the need for greater cooperation between high schools and colleges to reduce the need for students to take remedial courses when they get to campus – an effort that eats up millions of dollars that could be better spent in improving the quality and accessibility of college as well as lowering the costs.

And, Reagan said, it should be easier to transfer credits from one institution to another.

“English at one institution should be English at another institution,” he said. “Algebra 2 at one institution should be algebra 2 at another institution. If you have done it at one place, you should be able to say I’ve already done that and not take a course over again.”

Speaking of math – will the St. Louis area be able to do what it takes to move up from 14th to 10th in college attainment by 2025? Kaplan says it’s a matter of momentum and dedication.

“There have to be changes made,” he said. “You can’t just say you’re going to do something. You have to be willing to make changes that will impact the effort. I think our higher education community understands that the way education is being delivered in the 21st century is changing. People expect to be able to do things online, and they are looking to get credit for work experience.

“There are deliberate steps you can make, but you start by establishing a goal. The business community can’t do it by itself. Nor can the non-profits, or government, or education. But together, we absolutely can do it.”