Smart Growth: Creating Sustainable Cities Through Higher Education

In urban planning circles, smart growth refers to the infrastructure development strategies cities employ in hopes of creating more sustainable and successful communities. But, what about the other smart growth -- the approach that involves investing in the development of our citizens, our human capital?

In his book Triumph of the City, economist Edward Glaeser said, "Human capital, far more than physical infrastructure, explains which cities succeed. The share of the population with a college degree is used to estimate the skill level of a place, and no other measure does better in explaining recent urban prosperity. As the share of the population with college degrees increases by 10 percent, per capita gross metropolitan product rises by 22 percent."

That's a powerful indicator to city leaders on where they should invest, and research has shown time and time again that there is a direct correlation between thriving cities and postsecondary education. What we mean by postsecondary education is all types of high quality post-high school credentials, including certificates, associates degrees, bachelors and beyond. Increased attainment delivers stronger local economies, greater individual earning power and better quality of life. And since every community in America wants that, Lumina Foundation has launched a new initiative to give civic leaders more of the tools they need to be successful.

This community collaborative effort connects participating cities with significant technical and planning assistance, data tools, flexible funding and special access to a powerful network of national thought leaders. It is designed to help cities across America focus more on their human capital as a means to dramatically increase the number of local residents with postsecondary credentials. Twenty cities have been selected as the first community participants and those cities are now part of a collaborative effort that connects them with significant technical and planning assistance, data tools, flexible funding and special access to a powerful network of national thought leaders.

The national thought-leadership organizations joining Lumina to help the initial communities develop action plans focused on increasing the percentage of high-quality certificates, associate degrees and bachelor's degrees held by local residents include: American Chamber of Commerce Executives, Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, Brookings Institution, Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, DCA, Inc., Excelencia in Education, The Harwood Institute, Institute for Higher Education Policy, National League of Cities, OMG Center, Say Yes to Education Foundation, Strive Together, Talent Dividend and United Way Worldwide.

The 20 communities chosen -- spanning from Albuquerque to Boston, Seattle to Syracuse -- were selected based on momentum they've already demonstrated toward graduating more students. These cities know they need more talent to be successful in the 21st century knowledge economy, and now they have more tools and partners to help them achieve their goals.

We plan to expand the community attainment work to other cities in 2014 and beyond, and we think it's vitally important for all city leaders to address this issue of leveraging human capital. Research shows that by the end of this decade, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require some level of postsecondary education. That's a big percentage and the startling reality is that very few American cities are on pace to have the skilled workforce they'll need to match the demand that's coming.

Of course, the benefits of increased college attainment go beyond economics. Significant social benefits ripple out as well: greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of voter participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, less dependence on public assistance. Yes, economics matter, but at its core, this effort is about empowering people, creating smarter cities and building a stronger nation through higher education.

The pace of attainment, then, has huge implications for every city in America. Communities that focus and invest in higher education, keeping the talent they have and bringing even more educated people in, will have far greater chances of being competitive, vibrant places to live and work. Communities that do nothing will continue to shrink, losing their luster and attractiveness. It's that simple.

Jamie Merisotis is President and CEO of Lumina Foundation.