Even before they got word that a $1 million prize had been established to reward the city that achieved the biggest increase in college-degree attainment, education leaders in northeast Ohio had already begun working on ways to raise the number of college graduates in their locales.
As part of a regional initiative, the Ohio leaders 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 15 credits per semester in order to complete a four-year degree on time.
Last week, members of the group—known as the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education—collected the $1 million prize awarded by the National Talent Dividend Network, an initiative launched in 2008 by CEOs for Cities, a Washington nonprofit that works with urban leaders to promote innovation.
The Ohio group won after one of its member cities, Akron, emerged as the winner of the prize by raising the number of degree holders by more than 20 percent, from 10,500 in 2010 to 12,260 in 2013.
Shawn Brown, the vice president of the council, the Cleveland-based group that led the Ohio college-going initiative, said that, while the group’s college-completion efforts had begun before the prize, the award still “captured everybody’s imagination that we could compete in something and win.”
“A million dollars is a lot to any of our institutions,” Mr. Brown said. "[The prize] really galvanized support for the Talent Dividend to track our progress and move forward.”
By the Numbers
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 the city’s adult population has earned college degrees.
“This is not a beauty contest,” said Joseph Cortright, of Impresa Economics in Portland, Ore., who served as a 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 was the brainchild of Carol Coletta, the vice president of community and national initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in Miami, back when she served as the president of CEOs for Cities, and William Moses, the managing director of education at the Kresge Foundation, in Troy, Mich., which funded the prize.
The prize competition grew out of an analysis by Mr. Cortright that found that an increase of 1 percentage point in the four-year-degree attainment rate in a given city is associated with an overall increase in income of $750 per capita.
“If we could raise our overall educational attainment rate by 1 percentage point, that would be expected to add about $124 billion in personal income,” Mr. Cortright said at a ceremony held here to present the prize.
Fifty-seven metropolitan statistical areas—a geographic designation for cities—competed for the National Talent Dividend prize. Mr. Cortwright said that, after adjusting for population growth, there was an overall 7.6 percent increase in college degrees awarded across all 57 of the regions involved in the competition between the 2009-10 academic year—the base year for the prize period—and 2012-13. More specifically, the competing areas collectively awarded 55,000 associate degrees and 69,000 more bachelor’s degrees during the competition period, Mr. Cortright said.
At the same time, when asked if there was any way to know if the increases in degree attainment were due to specific actions that education leaders in the competing areas had taken, or other economic factors that would have caused the increases regardless, Mr. Cortright said: “We don’t. Plain and simple.”
“I think that’s something we will have to study,” he said.
Jim Tressel, the president of Youngstown State University in Ohio, 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,” Mr. 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 Council on Higher Education said the $1 million prize will be shared among organizations in that regional network, which includes entities in Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, and Canton. Mr. Brown said the money would be invested in efforts to accelerate college completion.
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.”
Even though only one region took home the prize, Lee Fisher, the president and chief executive officer of CEOs for Cities, said the award helped foster more cross-sector collaboration around college completion.
“Collaboration is the new competition, and when a prize works, it means everybody wins,” Mr. Fisher said. “And this prize worked, which means everybody won.”
Organizers of the prize said it is unclear if it will be repeated, but expressed hope that others would launch similar efforts in the future.
Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and a founding director of its Metropolitan Policy Program, said such competitions could enable education leaders to identify and emulate effective efforts to increase degree completion as a way of eliminating wealth gaps across racial lines and bringing about greater economic well-being for families.
“It’s just the nature of people [to] ... respond to these kinds of competitions,” Mr. Katz said. “I think the notion of a challenge is inspiring, galvanizing, catalyzing.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Ohio Group Wins $1 Million Prize for College Attainment