In an effort to attract employers and investors, the St. Louis Regional Chamber wants to add 75,000 college graduates by the year 2025, pushing the area into the top 10 nationwide in college attainment.
The first time Janet Martinez started college, she was right out of high school in Oklahoma. By her own admission, she was not quite ready for the responsibility involved: too many decisions, too much social life.
“It was all too much for me,” she says. She left after one semester.
The second time Martinez started college, she was in her late 20s, a single mother with a young daughter. She signed up for a stenography course at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, but she didn’t realize how much work was involved. Trying to juggle a child, a job and school proved to be overwhelming. She left after a semester and a half.
“Sometimes,” she says now, “we set ourselves up to fail.”
Now, that baby daughter is all grown up and in college on her own. With time on her hands, and a better perspective on what higher education requires, Martinez is in college again.
She’s headed for a degree in business management at Webster University, with a paralegal certificate on the side. She’s clearly proud when she says she’s earning straight A’s and loves the learning involved.
“Before,” Martinez says, “college was more of a means to an end. It wasn’t what I chose to do, it was what I had to do.”
With more direction, a clear goal and hard-won perspective and maturity, she decided to “shift gears and keep moving.”
“This time around,” she told a conference Tuesday morning designed to help more St. Louis area residents gain their college degrees, “it’s a priority.”
The conference, sponsored by the St. Louis Regional Chamber, has set a goal of being in the top 10 nationwide in the number of college graduates by the year 2025. To reach that level, organizers of the effort say 75,000 more people will need to earn their degrees.
And, consultant Blair Forlaw told about 200 people gathered at the Wells Fargo Advisors Learning Center, other cities aren’t about to stand still and let St. Louis pass them by.
“Our position is good,” she said. “Our numbers are improving. But the competition is fierce.”
Key groups and roadblocks
The two-hour session was a follow-up to one earlier this year where the challenge was announced and strategies were debated. This time around, Forlaw and others used newly gathered statistics to outline the task ahead.
Though the St. Louis area ranks 19th nationwide in terms of population, it is 14th in terms of college degree attainment. It has 49 colleges and universities that grant degrees, with 203,500 students enrolled in the 2011-12 school year. During that time, more than 40,000 degrees were awarded, from two-year diplomas on up.
But that number could have been higher. Statistics gathered from a number of sources told this story:
- More than half of students who were enrolled, 52 percent, will take longer than six years to earn a degree, if they reach that milestone at all. Only 25 percent of full-time four-year students graduate within four years.
- African-American enrollment was up 47 percent between 2006 and 2011, compared with 9 percent for white students, but only 23 percent of African-American students completed four-year degrees in six years or less, compared with 54 percent for whites.
- Two-thirds of the students in two-year programs and 34 percent of those in four-year programs were enrolled in remedial courses.
- Access to college for low-income students improved dramatically. The number of students with Pell grants increased 98 percent for two-year schools and 55 percent for four-year schools between 2006 and 2011.
The study identified five roadblocks for students who don’t manage to earn their degrees – difficulty transferring credits, high costs, a failure to align higher education with the needs of local businesses, a fragmented approach by schools and employers, and a lack of common metrics that can help schools and others be accountable.
“A strategy is no good unless we have the metrics to support it,” Forlaw said. “If we don’t measure it, it won’t get done.”
The effort to improve the rate of degrees earned is targeting five separate groups: Current students, current graduates, working adults, unemployed adults and military veterans. Each presents problems and promise.
For example, the age group for traditional students, right out of high school, is increasing more slowly than other age groups, presenting a challenge for colleges and universities seeking to maintain their enrollment. And too often, graduates – particularly immigrants – too often cannot find employment in their chosen field, what Forlaw called not a brain drain but a brain waste.
“They are not able to get jobs that put all of their smarts to use,” she said.
What employers and investors want
Even if schools could enroll and graduate an influx of students in the next 12 years, does the St. Louis area have jobs for all of them? Joe Reagan, who heads the Regional Chamber, says that’s not the right question to ask. Instead, he said in an interview, the emphasis should be on using education to grow the region’s employment base.
“We know that employers and investors look at talent as the No. 1 factor when considering where to put jobs,” he said, adding:
“Increases in educational attainment levels have a direct correlation to job creation.”
With the nation’s economic recovery remaining tepid, Reagan said, diplomas can be the ticket to good jobs.
“The only class of citizens in the country that has more jobs today than before the Great Recession started is those with college degrees,” he said.
And degrees can be just the starting point, Reagan said, if colleges and universities put an emphasis on lifelong learning, an attitude that people have to adapt to changing economic conditions.
“We have to learn how to learn,” he said.
“It’s a global knowledge economy. It’s not just attaining a degree and you’re done. We’re in a marathon of learning. We’re going to have to continue our learning, formally and informally, for the rest of our lives.”
That theme was a big part of the panel that Martinez and others took part in as a central portion of Tuesday’s program.
For Craig Washington, who graduated with a degree he didn’t use and instead went into customer service – a job that soon disappeared as that field changed -- the lesson was making sure you can find employment that is meaningful.
He’s now with the Urban League. “I don’t consider it a job,” Washington said. “I consider it a career.”
And, he added, his education made such a switch possible.
“It makes you not afraid of the unknown,” Washington said. “I’m a testament to what education can do for an unemployed adult.”
Aaron Schumacher told the session that he was a “not so good student” when he left high school, so he joined the military, where he became more disciplined and gained an appreciation for what education can do.
Most of his fellow service members, he said, had two wishes: “I can’t wait to grow my hair and I can’t wait to go to school for free.”
But, he added, he is always surprised at how few people take advantage of the benefits the GI Bill offers.
For Martinez, once her third try at college was on track, one of her big accomplishments came when she took a course in public speaking, facing what she considered a long-time nemesis.
Taking part in the panel discussion, she was personable, quotable and apparently at ease talking to an audience, though she admitted afterwards she was still a little nervous.
Still, she said, “I went to a public speaking class, and here I am.”
In an interview later, she added:
“Merry Christmas to me. I faced one of my fears today.”