The city's academic salvation
April 8, 2008
Leonard Ellis, Philadelphia Daily News
LISTEN TO a Philly guy boost the Phils or parse politics and you might think Philadelphians know everything they need to know. You'd be wrong.
Philadelphia ranks 92nd of the 100 largest U.S. cities in workforce college attainment, despite having the second-highest concentration of colleges and universities within its limits. (Boston is first). Only four in 10 in the labor pool have graduatedfrom high school or earned a GED. Just 18 percent have a college degree, woefully short of Boston's 40 percent. (Seattle boasts 53 percent.)
A Pennsylvania Economy League and Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board study from 2005 warns that demand will rise 31 percent for associate-degree workers, 22 percent for bachelor's-degree workers and just 12 percent for high school-only workers by 2010.
Mayor Nutter's annual goal must therefore be to return 15,000 city residents to school and raise their job suitability, or discouraged employers will spurn the "new Philadelphia."
Start by upgrading the 73,000 workers who have college credits but no degree. Coaxing non-degree workers through college would be a windfall for the city. Each new "comebacker" graduate adds $396 in tax revenue, $3,500 more purchasing power citywide and trims social service costs by $1,000.
A bus boy with an education is a food-services manager in the growing hospitality industry, upgrade a waitress to a nurse for the health sector, turn the Rite Aid security guard into a pharmacist. Every scenario pays enormous dividends. Goal: Re-enroll 5,000-8,000 Comebackers yearly.
Employers currently investing in their college graduates' post-graduate degrees should invest in their non-high school graduates' GEDs and add internships. Combine "personal economics" with the GED. Finish both and get cash in a bank account. Goal: 4,000-7,000 GEDs annually.
Increase private-public incentives to graduate from Community College of Philadelphia or other participating city colleges. (Nutter's budget adds an unambitious $4 million a year for five years to pay $28 million of CCP's $115 million budget.) Give a short-term tax break to residents who return and complete college.
Raising the city's graduation rate will be expensive. Project U-Turn, a $10 million government- and foundation-funded program, attracted calls from 1,554 dropouts in 2007, but only 158 re-enrolled in school. Since 8,000 students quit school yearly, a two-percent return is negligible.
The city must pursue dropout re-enrollment with missionary zeal. Nutter should start "Stop and Talk." In low-attainment neighborhoods, embed city and private human resources pros to go door-to-door. Convene life fairs where counselors prepare adults to resume education.
A 2005 Oxford study linked the addition of omega-3 fatty acid to students' diets to sharp increases in reading, spelling and concentration. Minimizing students' intake of trans-fats, carbohydrates and high fructose corn syrup would eliminate other contributing physiological factors for poor academic performance.
A thoughtful 2007 study commissioned by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education posited that "high need, low resource" Philly schools must spend an additional $890 million above the current $2.1 billion to achieve 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
BETTER, mandate nutrition reform before spending $4,184 more a pupil on mini-schools and extended days. (The 31 percent below the poverty line need good food away from school.) Goal: Reduce high school dropouts by 4,000 to 6,000 a year.
The city must keep a healthier share of its college grads. Penn's Wharton School graduates 1,000 MBAs annually but fewer than 50 (4.5 percent) stay in Philadelphia to work. Boston, less than half Philadelphia's size, latches on to 13 percent of Harvard Business School's 1,000 graduates.
Assign a value of $4 million during a Harvard or Wharton MBA's career. Boston's retention of 80 more MBAs than Philadelphia equals $320 million a year in potential career earnings. Every year, Philly falls further behind Boston in per-capita income.
Boston with Harvard and MIT, San Francisco with Stanford and Berkeley, Raleigh-Durham with UNC and Duke have something that Philadelphia covets. Two top schools to foster research, enterprise, and attract excellent faculty and students. Temple and Drexel must challenge Penn here.
Encourage top grads to stay in the city for seven years, when the city-based employer will pay off the employee's college loans, the city will provide a tax credit to the employer and a wage-tax incentive to the new resident.
Nutter must instill a culture of learning that motivates thousands more Philadelphians to finish high school or college. If that happens, the Phils' fan may not know more about baseball, but he'll be able to afford better seats.
Leonard Ellis is a Swarthmore writer.