Keep your eye on Toledo, the metropolitan area with the highest college enrollment rate in the nation.
The number of area students starting school is double what it was 10 years ago. That's a proud distinction, but how many of them will make it to graduation day?
Toledo will provide an important test of whether cash-strapped higher education can translate soaring enrollments into a new generation of highly-skilled, college-educated workers.
According to a recent Brookings Institution report, "The State of Metropolitan America," 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 challenge of increasing the percentage of college graduates is made more difficult by severe state budget cuts. Fiscal straits forced the University of Toledo to impose a hiring freeze. The Blade has reported that there are hundreds of applicants for every available slot.
Ohio officials know that responding with tuition increases and enrollment caps would be irresponsible and not sustainable. In-state undergraduates enjoyed a two-year reprieve from tuition hikes, followed by increases lower than the national average for the past two years.
Graduating more students in challenging times requires higher education to reinvent itself and become more efficient and cost-effective. Ohio is among seven states that are working with the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education to boost the productivity of higher education by graduating more students without significantly increasing funding or cutting corners on quality.
States that receive productivity grants seek to streamline course-taking and shorten the time required to earn a degree. They are working to increase the efficiency of business operations and channel dollars in ways that reward colleges for graduating students, not just enrolling them.
Other common-sense cost-cutting moves include the University of Cincinnati's success in reducing energy waste, saving $13 million in utility bills. Ohio State University's Rx Ohio Collaborative has saved $216 million by using generic drugs and drug manufacturers' bulk discounts.
Ohio and other states with productivity grants - Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas - are national models for how campuses and lawmakers 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 have come at a better time. There is an acute sense of urgency to achieving a higher education system that can deliver graduates who are prepared for success.
Only about a quarter of adults older than 24 in Toledo have earned bachelor's degrees, ranking Toledo just 88th among the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas. 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 collapse in the state's manufacturing base, especially its auto industry, convinced many unemployed Ohioans and young adults that college is a smart investment. It's our responsibility to prove they were right.
In so doing, we can 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 its surge in college enrollments will provide important lessons for improving the value of higher education spending across the nation. But success will depend on making wise choices about how we invest.
USA Today recently named Toledo "Solar City" because of its growing solar energy production sector, sparked by the scientific and entrepreneurial work of a former UT engineering professor. This is just one area where the surge in enrollment could translate into thousands of new, good-paying jobs.
Owens Community College has responded to this opportunity by building solar arrays and a wind turbine as working education models on one of its campuses. Green jobs are among the fastest-growing sector of the work force, and can help pull Ohio and the nation out of the economic slump.
More college graduates create greater economic mobility, a higher standard of living, and sustained economic recovery. These are just a few reasons to keep an eye on Toledo.
Terrell Halaska and Kristin Conklin are founding partners of HCM Strategists, a Washington public policy and advocacy consulting firm.