08/29/2012 09:39 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

I wrote a post back in May about the value of a post-secondary degree because I was becoming increasingly frustrated with a growing narrative arguing that college is a waste of time and resources. I tend to think and write about educational attainment from a social justice and equity perspective but thought I would try to reach a broader audience by approaching with a more practical and pragmatic argument. Consequently, I wrote about the opportunities for employment, the higher earnings potential of degree holders, higher standard of living, and the impact of an educated society on our global competitiveness. Surprisingly, the debate rolled on.

The value of a post-secondary degree continues to be challenged.

A report released today by the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings analyzed labor markets using data on adult educational attainment, occupations, and job openings in the 100 largest metropolitan areas from January 2006 to February 2012, and its five key findings have real implications for why we must keep a laser focus on educating our citizens:

• Advertised job openings in large metropolitan areas require more education than all existing jobs, and more education than the average adult has attained.
• Metro areas vary considerably in the level of education required by job openings posted online.
• Unemployment rates are 2 percentage points higher in large metro areas with a shortage of educated workers relative to demand and have been consistently higher since before the recession.
• Declines in industry demand and housing prices explain most of the recent cyclical increases in metropolitan unemployment rates, but education gaps explain most of the structural level of metropolitan unemployment over the past few years.
• Metro areas with higher education gaps have experienced lower rates of job creation and job openings over the past few years.

These findings draw a direct link between education, unemployment, and job creation in cities (or metropolitan areas) that deserves notice because we are witnessing a dramatic shift in how people choose where to live and work.

According to Census data released in June 2012, for the first time in over a century, the nation's 51 largest metropolitan areas grew faster than their suburbs between July 2010 and July 2011. By contrast, only five metro areas saw their core grow faster than the surrounding suburbs from 2000 to 2010.

Educational attainment and the growth of cities directly connect because 58 percent of any city's success, when measured by per capita income, can be explained by the percentage of the adult population with a college degree. Even small improvements in educational attainment can yield big dividends for metropolitan areas. Research released by CEOs for Cities found that if 51 of the largest metropolitan areas each increased their college attainment rates by just one percentage point, it would be worth $124 billion in additional personal income for the nation.

The Brookings study highlights the probability that closing the educational gap in our cities will lead to lower unemployment and more job creation, and is essential to revitalizing our economy. The report notes that educational attainment makes workers more employable, creates demand for complementary less educated workers, and facilitates entrepreneurship. In short, a rising tide lifts all boats.

Many cities are already committed to and engaged in the work of not only educating their citizens, but aligning training curricula and certifiable skills with employer demand. Among these are 57 cities currently competing for the Talent Dividend $1 million prize, supported by the Kresge and Lumina Foundations to be awarded to the city that exhibits the greatest increase in the number of post-secondary degrees granted per 1,000 population over a four-year period. The Talent Dividend is one of a number of college completion initiatives, but it sets itself apart by utilizing the power of cross-sector collaboration, also known as Collective Impact, which focuses on the commitment of a group of leaders from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a complex social problem. Leaders from higher education, business, and workforce development in cities across the nation are convening around the need for a more prepared, skilled, and educated workforce.

The debate over the value of a post-secondary degree will undoubtedly rage on, but I foresee greater difficulty in arguing against some form of additional training and/or post-secondary education in light of the relentless output of evidence tying education to not only our nation's present recovery, but its future.

Noël Harmon, Ph.D. is the National Director of the Talent Dividend at CEOs for Cities.