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Maybe the answer to our nation's talent crisis is hiding in plain view

By Dakota Pawlicki and Haley Glover

Lumina Foundation, in collaboration with The Kresge Foundation, awarded seven more communities a Talent Hub designation this week. These communities join 17 others selected in 2017 after meeting rigorous criteria demonstrating bold action to attract, retain, and cultivate talent, particularly in ways that eliminate disparities in educational outcomes among people of color.

To meet future challenges, our nation needs millions more people with degrees, certificates and other quality credentials beyond a high school diploma. Without them, we simply won’t have enough people with the knowledge and skills necessary to prosper individually and collectively in a global economy. Most of these additional credentials, which range from industry-recognized certifications to bachelor’s degrees, must be earned by people who have not been well-served by the way the nation provides education beyond high school. These are people from low-income families, men and women of color, and adults.

Why are we working at the local level? Good question. Even though we have designated some of the largest cities in the nation Talent Hubs, these 24 cities or metro areas represent a fraction of the nation’s population. Cities often lack the higher education policy apparatus that states rely on to help educate large numbers of people. And usually there are no financial ties between cities and colleges, universities, or other local education providers.

But like Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Katz and writers and journalists James and Deborah Fallows, we believe the era of the city has arrived. While state and federal policy remain vital instruments of education reform, local solutions are emerging as fresh, hopeful indicators of progress. These local efforts include the “Warrior Way Back” program at Wayne State University, which can waive past-due balances for students who are considering a return to college. Or, Denver Direct Pathways, a coalition of five colleges and universities that joined forces to create seamless pathways to in-demand credentials. Such efforts are often borne of acute need or frustration. But they can also influence state and federal policy action—and that’s when the real magic happens. As Lumina’s Board Chairman Joe Loughrey sometimes says: “If you work from the top-down and the bottom-up, you increase the squeeze-to-juice ratio.”

Further, in Talent Hub communities, there is a growing sense on the part of community and education leaders no one can afford to dwell in an ivory tower. Colleges, universities, and other providers of post-high school education are the lifeblood of regional economic development. Local talent, even more than tax policy or infrastructure, tops the priority list of companies looking to relocate or expand. Likewise, cities supply a lot of for people who want something more than a high school diploma. Talent Hub communities and partner institutions view their relationships as interwoven—and they find the Talent Hub partnership helps everyone win.

While hundreds of communities are working together to improve education outcomes, we believe these 24 sites are onto something special. Each local community has committed to systemic, wholesale reform that will dramatically improve results for students and raise the overall level of education. Each local community has committed to, and shown the capacity for, specific action to eliminate unfair and unjust results when outcomes for people of color are carefully examined. And each local community has committed to a shared plan to reach a specific level of post-high school education attainment among its residents.

Most important, each local community has agreed to share lessons. While the nation’s Talent Hubs are focused on changing their communities, the leaders of these efforts have baked sharing what works—and what doesn’t—into their DNA. These partnerships are poised to influence and improve other cities by working together nationally to overcome barriers and challenges. In the same way, Lumina and Kresge are committed to providing venues and opportunities for other communities, large and small, to learn from Talent Hubs by hosting large gatherings, sharing useful resources, and coaching and providing direct assistance.

Today, there are 24 Talent Hubs doing remarkable work. But we need hundreds more communities to follow their lead. They need to working systemically and collaboratively. They need to make it about more than just whether people have access to education but also whether they’re positioned to earn and benefit from degrees and other credentials. Finally, they need to eradicate the racism and bias that have led to unfair and unjust education results among people of color in this country.

When we do better by groups that have been marginalized in the past, everyone benefits. And Talent Hubs are poised to show us the way.

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A series of reports show investing in employee tuition reimbursement yields significant financial payback.
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