Nashville Mayor Karl Dean outlined a major new education goal in his second inaugural address in September: double the number of college graduates in the city. The Mayor pointed to the strong, positive connections between an educated workforce and economic growth. Cities with higher education attainment levels among the population are more competitive when wooing potential business prospects to the city. Corporate interests are motivated by talent and will pick up and move to cities with notably high levels of human capital. An increase in productivity, low training costs, stable growth – these are attributes of a highly educated workforce. Indeed, an educated citizenry is the seedbed for financial and social stability. With rapid growth in areas such as information technology and health care, bio-medical research and clean energy, and increasing specialization across many sectors of the labor market, it makes good sense to specify this particular education goal at this particular time, in this particular city. But it’s complicated.

At this point, it is paramount to underSCORE how the public benefits of an educated populace intersect with the private benefits (social mobility) that accrue with a college education — increased lifetime earnings (see graph) as well as better health, more stable relationships, higher satisfaction levels. In sum, a strong and well educated city population can be a magnet for business development; and the greater the stock of attractive and high paying jobs, the more likely that college-educated individuals will move to the city of Nashville (and not to our competitors — cities like Austin or Raleigh). Sounds simple. But of course, it is not. We face some high hurdles in moving from goal to reality in growing the number of college graduates. Education leaders in Nashville have been gaining ground on one troubling factor –low high school graduation rates – but college persistence is still a problem in this city — and across the state. An array of factors contributes to college readiness and college completion – most notably academic preparation that is geared to the skills, attitudes (focus and determination), and (study) habits necessary to succeed in college. This is often referred to as academic rigor and is associated with the degree of “alignment” between high school curricula and college work. Thus, the problem of low college graduation rates is connected to the preparation of students enrolled in middle and high schools. Early childhood education and elementary education provide the platform for later stages of educational growth and engagement. We haven’t even mentioned the problem of rising college costs and the ability of students to pay – either through loans, grants, or scholarships. And then there is the issue of students’ awareness of college costs, planning for college, etc. Yes, it’s complicated, but the Mayor has offered some solid ideas: additional dual enrollment options to get high school students on an early pathway to college, summer academic tutoring for skills enhancement, and new information sessions on college costs/assistance.

What do the citizens of Nashville think about this Mayor’s challenge? What partnerships are envisioned (potentially) in the first wave of action? Is this a call for Nashville’s own “Manhattan Project” that will convene the sharpest minds and deepest efforts to accelerate academic growth, reduce the achievement gap (by race, income), and increase college attainment among Nashville’s youth?

I teach a course at Peabody College/Vanderbilt University that focuses upon education and social policy. My students recently read an array of research papers, books, and book chapters (they tell me there’s too much reading) on the factors that influence college access and preparation. I asked my students to respond to Mayor Dean’s call to action. Each student wrote a policy memo to the Mayor and his staff. The students’ memos emphasized three take away points: 1) educational success (and conversely, failure) is cumulative, complex (school and out-of-school factors), and starts early; 2) teacher quality and teacher expectations are a key element in the educational lives, levels of engagement, and success of students; 3) strategies such as AVID, GEAR-UP, small learning communities and de-tracking are crucial to a long-term strategy of educational reform, a push toward academic rigor and academic support, and a reduction in the dropout rate. But other intractable issues linger. Sam, a senior, noted: “As Bowen, Kurtzweil and Tobin suggest in their work, Equity and Excellence in American Education, ‘The cumulative advantages associated with growing up in a well-to-do family (including receiving better-quality primary and secondary education and having more supportive peers and role models) are mostly responsible for the gap in enrollment’ (93). The origins of these issues are systemic rather than from a single source, so additional funding is unlikely to produce swift or significant results. Though opening the discussion for educational reform is an important first step, a long-term approach focusing on the underlying social and economic gaps in the Nashville community should drive change efforts for improving the college graduation rate.”

Well done, Sam. He references an illuminating source (Equity and Excellence in American Education) for evidence on the complexity of education success. I recommend this book to those interested and invested in this challenge of increasing college attainment. It is complex, and the issue must involve sustained attention to the persistent achievement gap across racial and income groups (see graph). But the mayor has a key partner in Metro Nashville Superintendent Jesse Register. The district’s broad-based efforts include a focus on teacher quality, investments in programs like AVID, and in sustaining initiatives such as “middle college,” credit recovery (to reduce dropout rates), high school academies, and other productive programs.

This laser focus on education reform, coupled with expansive new initiatives and deepening investments in youth and college attainment, lay the foundation for broad-based civic mobilization. It’s a good start, Mr. Mayor.