Increasing educational attainment should be the No. 1 economic development goal for Rust Belt cities, Carol Coletta, President of CEOs for Cities, told attendees at the 2nd annual Great Lakes Urban Exchange Conference in Milwaukee today.
“If you give me one statistic and only one statistic, I can tell you if a city is successful,” she said. “The only thing I need to know is the percentage of college graduates.”
Young American “talent” is mobile, she said. College graduates are looking for cities that are clean, attractive, safe and have affordable housing. Those that can increase educational attainment can expect certain economic return, she said.
In Memphis (Colletta’s home town), increasing college attainment by 1 percent could lead to more than $1 billion in total increased income annually, she said. In Chicago, the same improvement would lead to an inrease of $7.2 billion annually.
Additionally, if cities are able to make incremental increases in sustainability and “opportunity” (or reduction in poverty), the returns are greater still. A 1 percent increase in each of these areas could yield a $166 billion in return nationally, she said. (Sustainability was measured by reduction in total miles traveled.)
It’s up to young people to advocate for this issue, Colleta said. She also called on conference attendees to develop innovations that will be “game changing” for distressed cities.
“These game changing ideas are not going to come from elected officials in your cities,” she said. “The problem is normative thinking. The leaders believe that the world today is the world as it was.”
She asked young people who had observed potentially game-changing ideas in action to contact her with suggestions. If you’ve got a suggestion, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.