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Education summit hears calls for collaboration, urgency

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: At the start of Thursday’s regional education summit to determine the best way to help more St. Louis area residents earn college degrees, Danny Ludeman stepped to the microphone, took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.

That pretty much summarized the message of speakers for the next five hours: Everybody involved – from education, business, government, civic groups and others – needs to get down to work quickly if they want to meet a goal of having the area move into the top 10 nationwide in college degrees by the year 2025. It is now ranked 14th.

The meeting was coordinated by the St. Louis Regional Chamber, where Ludeman, who is president and CEO of Wells Fargo Advisors, is chair. He worked to inspire the group of nearly 200, saying that St. Louis is ready to move forward to reach a position that not only will help the region economically and educationally but morally as well.

“I couldn’t be more fired up,” Ludeman said. “I’m excited about the region, but its not enough for me to be excited. I need you to be excited….Our region has never been more poised to grow than it is today.”

Collaboration was the key word of the day. The best way to reach the goal, Ludeman made clear, was for all of the groups involved to begin working together more closely, but he and others were not blind to the obstacles that too often stand in the way of such cooperation.

Business, government and education often don’t speak the same language, so just getting them to understand each other, much less work together, can be difficult. And entities within each group may be competing with each other, so it can be hard to make them step back and see how the larger goal will help everyone involved.

To put it in hard financial terms, speakers presented evidence on how college degrees raise lifetime earnings for everyone who has one. In term of the region as a whole, they said, every 1 percentage point increase in college attainment equals $856 in additional income for every man, woman and child -- $2.4 billion for the St. Louis area altogether.

And people who earn a degree not only bring greater talents to their jobs – they help attract companies looking to locate where they can recruit the employees they need.

“The point is this,” Ludeman said. “Talent attracts talent. First-class people attract first-class people. Second-class people attract third-class people.”

Mark Lindgren, chief human resources officer at Ameren, added:

“If we move from 14th to 10th, we are going to create the perception that something is going right.”

As one of the breakout groups that discussed the effort during lunch put it, the region’s new slogan could be:

“St. Louis is the coolest place we can afford to live.”

The campaign – whose goals are outlined on its website -- will focus on five separate groups: current students, college graduates, working adults, unemployed adults and veterans. The plan is to have short, medium and long-term efforts underway, to ensure a continuous flow of new ideas and the flexibility to shift course if necessary.

And speaker after speaker emphasized the urgency of getting started.

“The price of doing nothing is going up for everybody,” said Lee Kaplan, chief administrative officer at Enterprise Holdings.

Lindgren put it this way:

“We can’t wait to be shown the way, or put this initiative on the list of things that we’re going to get to.”

To reach its goal, the St. Louis area will need to add about 75,000 more college degrees above the current trend line between now and 2025. One question was whether the nearly 50 colleges and universities in the region would be able to accommodate that many additional students.

The answer appears to be in changing the way college is taught, including greater use of online courses and more courses taught in different places at different times from the traditional college schedule.

One panel featured people doing similar work in Chicago, Philadelphia and northeast Ohio, areas with a head start in having more residents with college degrees.  

Richard Longworth, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, noted that one of St. Louis' problems is that people who may want to start successful businesses often feel they have to do so elsewhere.

“You have an awful lot of smart kids here, with good ideas,” he said. “But often, they have to go to California to put them into practice.”

Plus, he added, simply urging everyone to get along and work together may not be enough.

“There is a lot of turf consciousness,” he said. “There’s a lot of politics, a lot of people who just don’t want things to change.”

But when things are going right, added Bernard Dagenais, with World Class Greater Philadelphia, don’t hesitate to let people know.

“Work on things that need to be fixed,” he said, “but also celebrate things that are going well. That all adds up to momentum.”

Mayor Francis Slay said that the college attainment goal can help the region achieve a sought-after status: “We want to be one of those destinations that businesses look to because of the talent we have.”

And Rich McClure, president of UniGroup, broadened the conversation not only to increasing college graduation rates but strengthening education starting at the pre-school level.

Noting the 16 million children in the United States and the 66,000 in the St. Louis area who are living in poverty, McClure said the summit’s goal is not only an economic imperative, it is a moral imperative.

“I believe it is the sleeping civil rights issue of our day.”

He urged everyone to carry what they learned at the summit back to their workplaces, “to keep the buzz going,” and to volunteer to help achieve the goals.

“Tackle this as it has to be tackled,” McClure said, “one person, one student at a time.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.