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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Got that diploma? Now stick around

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

As the college commencement season winds down, many of northwest Ohio's newly minted graduates appear to be leaving town to try to launch their careers. That's alarming, because we can't afford to lose any of them.

Toledo ranks a dismal 86th among the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas in its share of college-educated residents, a new analysis by the Brookings Institution reports. Fewer than one out of four Toledo adults over the age of 25 have at least a bachelor's degree.

Nationally, the rate is nearly one out of three, about what it is in Columbus. Toledo also trails Cincinnati, Akron, Cleveland, and Detroit in the diploma derby. For whatever consolation it offers, we're still ahead of Youngstown.

We're even slightly behind Dayton, the subject of an article in the New York Times last month that described that city's brain drain. The story -- about a Rust Belt community that is struggling to attract a highly skilled work force to rebuild an economy battered by huge losses of auto-industry and other manufacturing jobs -- could have been written just as urgently about Toledo.

Toledo's share of college graduates is far higher than it was in 1970, when fewer than one in 10 adults here had four-year degrees. But the rates have grown even faster in three-fourths of the other big metropolitan areas. The Brookings study suggests that as college graduates increasingly flock to such prosperous places as Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin, our community risks getting left behind.

Why does this matter? People who have college degrees earn more than those who don't; good-paying jobs that don't require college degrees have eroded. College graduates live longer and are less likely to head single-parent families.

Communities with large numbers of higher-earning college graduates generally have diverse economies that provide more jobs for workers at all education levels, the Brookings study notes. They have broader tax bases that can support more and better public services and amenities. That's especially important as state government continues to starve Ohio communities and school districts of aid.

Whether the advantages that accrue to college graduates and their hometowns are fair is beside the point. It's a reality Toledo must address.

Two years ago, Brookings reported that Toledo ranked first among the largest metro areas in the percentage of its young adults enrolled in higher education. The inference is that plenty of young people go to college in Toledo -- but they either don't graduate or don't stay here once they do.

University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs says this community can fairly be considered a "university town," given its large number of higher-education institutions. But he concedes that many young graduates opt to move to "cool" cities such as Chicago and New York.

He notes that roughly 85 percent of new doctors who graduate from UT's medical school leave this area to pursue their careers. Still, he says, that's better than five years ago, when the rate was about 95 percent.

"There's a lot of outmigration because of the perceived quality of life for young people," Dr. Jacobs told me, "even though we've got wonderful amenities and a low cost of living.

"We've had trouble causing young, professional, college-educated people to grow roots here," he says. "We need to continue to focus on attracting the younger generation, the work force of the future. We're doing better, but we're not nearly where we need to be."

Toledo's leaders have talked for years about the importance of diversifying this region's economy -- to reduce our reliance on manufacturing while maintaining a strong industrial base, and to create more high-end service jobs in health care, finance, the professions, and higher education. That would enable northwest Ohio to develop, attract, and keep better-educated residents.

But the Brookings study notes that while areas such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Charlotte have greatly improved their college-attainment rates and guided successful economic transitions over the past four decades, Toledo hasn't done as well.

Part of the problem, the report concludes, is that metro Toledo's relatively small size places it at a competitive disadvantage. Larger communities have broader job markets that attract dual-earner couples, and a wider range of amenities that appeal to college graduates.

That can't become an excuse, though. Toledoans know that our community punches well above its weight in cultural and recreational opportunities. We also have such fundamental advantages as good universities, an innovative spirit, and a growing base in advanced manufacturing. We need to do a better job of getting that story out, especially to young adults.

If you're a recent college graduate or a rising senior, I'd like to hear from you. Do you plan to seek your career in Toledo? If not, why not? Where would you rather be? What would make you more likely to stay in this area?

Speaking at Cornell University's commencement last month, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg advised the graduates: "If you haven't found a job yet, you're better off coming to the city than sitting on your parents' couch." Toledo isn't New York, but Mayor Mike Bell may want to make a similar appeal to educated young people on his city's behalf.

Even if he did, though, would they listen?

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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