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Education and the Economy in Metropolitan America

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May 25, 2010 09:14 pm


Last week, the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program released the State of Metropolitan America , an impressive and timely in-depth look at the nation’s changing urban areas. In the report, the authors describe the uneven higher educational attainment of urban residents. In particuar, they focus on older adults—who tend to be more educated than their younger peers. The authors credit this disconnect to a new reality in which a growing number of young adults attend postsecondary education but never complete a program or degree.

This is an interesting finding, and one that must be addressed if the nation is to reach President Obama’s goal of leading the world in postsecondary degrees by 2020. It is an important reminder that getting students to college is not sufficient in itself to meet that goal—providing high school students with the preparation they need to succeed in college and to complete their program of study is also essential.

Surprisingly, another vital factor in this discussion—high school graduation rates—was not addressed at the individual metro area level. The report only looks at educational attainment starting at the postsecondary level and offers no analysis of trends in high school completion within the nation’s urban areas, many of which are known to have been hit extremely hard by the national high school dropout crisis.

An ongoing study at the Alliance for Excellent Education (with help from Editorial Projects in Education and Economic Modeling Systems, Inc.) on the dropout crisis in metropolitan areas has yielded a large amount of data on not only the number of high school dropouts in an individual metropolitan area, but also the estimated benefits to the area’s local economy if its graduation rate were to be improved.

For example, the Washington, DC metropolitan area—which also includes parts of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia—is identified in the Brookings report as having the highest proportion of adults aged 25 and over with a Bachelor’s Degree in 2008. While the DC area may have high concentrations of residents with a college degree, many of which are likely transplants from other areas, it also has a significant high school dropout problem. In January, the Alliance issued findings for the region showing that an estimated 18,200 students dropped out from the Class of 2008 alone. The Alliance estimates that if just half of these dropouts had graduated, 70 percent would likely go on to pursue some sort of post-secondary education (although, similar to the Brookings findings, only 5 percent would go as far as earning a bachelor’s degree or higher). In addition, these “new” high school graduates would earn as much as $157 million in additional annual earnings. Much of those earnings would be spent within the metro area, growing the local economy and supporting as many as 750 new jobs by the time these grads reached the mid-point of their careers.

These findings suggest that improving the high school graduation rate in the nation’s metropolitan areas will not only put us on a better track towards increasing our rate of postsecondary degrees, it will provide a shot of economic vitality into these regions along the way, too.

The Alliance released the findings for Washington, DC as part of its publication on the nation’s forty-five largest metropolitan areas (which can be found here ). It will soon release data on twenty-one additional major metro areas. Later this summer, the Alliance will also be releasing findings for these areas that look at the number of dropouts from particular ethnic groups and the economic benefits that would come from reducing the dropout rates of those specific populations.


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.