09/08/2010 09:13 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For the Future of Higher Education, Keep Your Eye on Toledo

Keep your eye on Toledo, the metropolitan area with the highest college enrollment rate in the nation.

As a new class of students begins their first days in higher education, the northwest Ohio city on the Maumee River will be an important test of whether cash-strapped higher education can translate soaring college enrollments into the new generation of highly skilled, college-educated workers needed to promote prosperity and civic engagement.

Will the almost doubled number of students in just ten years make it to graduation day? According to the new Brookings Institution report, The State of Metropolitan America, a stunning 60 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Toledo residents were enrolled in higher education in 2008. However, we know that nearly half of first-time, full-time students nationwide drop out. This represents lost time and money for both colleges and students.

The United States is a leader in higher education spending, but ranks only 10th among developed nations in its proportion of younger adults ages 25 to 34 with college degrees. The U.S. is simply not getting enough value out of the money it spends. Ever-rising tuition and fees are not yielding enough degree holders, and graduating insufficient numbers of people will drastically impair the nation's ability to maintain a strong economy.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports that the U.S. economy will create 22 million new jobs by 2018 for workers with a college education, but the nation is projected to fall 3 million workers short of people with at least an associate's degree and an additional 4.7 million workers short when demand for people with some kind of meaningful credential beyond a high school diploma is factored in. "This shortfall will mean lost economic opportunity for millions of American workers," according to the center, which is run by well-known labor economist Tony Carnevale.

The challenge of increasing the percentage of college graduates is made more difficult by severe state budget cuts. While Ohio's leaders have prioritized higher education funding in recent years, current budget limitations require that the University of Toledo impose a hiring freeze. Meanwhile, The Toledo Blade reports, there are hundreds of applications for every available slot. Graduating more students in such turbulent conditions requires that higher education reinvent itself and become more efficient and cost effective.

Ohio knows that responding with tuition increases and enrollment caps is irresponsible and not sustainable; statewide, for two years tuition for in-state undergraduates did not rise, and it increased at lower rates than the national average for the last two years.

Ohio is among states working to boost the productivity of higher education by graduating more students without significant funding increases or cutting corners on quality. As one of seven Lumina Foundation-supported states receiving "productivity grants," Ohio is getting help restructuring purchasing and other business operations. Colleges are working to streamline educational pathways and shorten the time required to earn a degree, increase the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of academic and business operations, and launch and sustain funding systems that reward colleges not just for enrolling students but also for helping them graduate. In addition to adopting a strong performance funding system, Ohio has:

1. Established an Affordability and Efficiency Council and launched dozens of statewide cost-savings initiatives; and,

2. Started to systematically connect students enrolled in adult literacy and workforce education programs to community colleges to ensure that more adults obtain training and credentials they will need to succeed in the workforce; and

3. Showcased many campus efforts to save money, such as the University of Cincinnati's efforts to reduce energy consumption by at least 13%, avoiding roughly $13 million in energy related costs, and promoted the "Rx Ohio Collaborative," housed at the Ohio State University, which reported savings of $216 million in FY 2009 through the use of generic drugs and drug manufacturers bulk discount.

Ohio and other states with productivity grants - Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Tennessee and Texas - are national models for how campuses and legislators can work together to make the best use of scarce public funding in an effort to ensure we have the educated population we will need.

Toledo's enrollment spike couldn't come at a better time. There is an acute sense of urgency to achieving a higher education system that can deliver graduates prepared for success. Only about a quarter of adults older than 24 in Toledo has earned bachelor's degrees, ranking Toledo just 88th among the top-100 metropolitan areas. Not surprisingly, between 2000 and 2008, median annual household income in Toledo dropped from $51,998 to $44,548. This 14.3 percent decline was the third-largest among the top metro areas.

The simultaneous crumbling of lower-skilled manufacturing and the automotive industry convinced many unemployed Ohioans and young adults that college is a smart investment. It's our responsibility to prove they were right and reverse a disturbing trend: For the first time, a generation of younger adults is on its way to being less educated than its parents' generation.

Toledo's success in leveraging the surge in college enrollments could become a positive economic example for Ohio and the rest of the nation. But success will depend on making wise choices about how we invest in higher education, which can no longer do business as usual.

USA Today recently named Toledo a 'Solar City,' because of its growing solar energy production sector. This is just one area where the surge in enrollment could translate into thousands of new good-paying jobs. More college graduates create greater economic mobility and a higher standard of living for all. These are just a few reasons to keep an eye on Toledo.