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A matter of degrees: Regional Chamber wants to boost college completion

Missouri Department of Higher Education

When it comes to education, Missouri has no shortage of goals.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education wants the state to be in, as its slogan says, in the Top 10 by 20 – among the leaders in a variety of school measures by the year 2020.

Not to be outdone, the state’s Department of Higher Education has its sights set a little further out, on 2025. Nine years from now, it wants Missouri to have 60 percent of its working-age adults with postsecondary credentials, to be in the top 10 for investment in academic research and to rank among the 10 most affordable states in which to obtain a postsecondary degree or certificate.

Now, you can add the St. Louis Regional Chamberto the list of goal setters. It’s working on a plan to have St. Louis be among the top 10 most educated metropolitan regions by 2025.

Such a status would help more than the newly minted graduates with bachelor’s or associate’s degrees, said Greg Laposa, the chamber’s vice president for education strategies. It would also give a boost to companies that want to attract and retain the skilled workforce they need.

“It’s fundamentally about making sure that people have education that allows them to have economic opportunity,” Laposa said in an interview.

“We know that there are significant benefits for the region when you have more educated people who are able to purchase goods and are able to find jobs that meet the needs of our employers.”

The chamber’s efforts began about five years ago and have evolved since, with leaders in business and education working together to develop goals and strategies to reach them. Plans will be further refined through the summer and fall.

At this point, reaching the top 10 would require 75,000 more people beyond current trends to earn a bachelor’s degree by 2025, plus another 10,000 people getting their associate’s degree.

Those degrees can be in specific fields, like the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math, that certain companies need. But Laposa said the effort is trying to think more broadly, so that new graduates have not just specific knowledge but the ability to master unforeseen challenges.

“Employers are focused on finding talent that is able to learn and relearn new skills,” he said. “Our economy is changing as we become more global. You can’t anticipate exactly what talent needs companies will have looking out 10 to 20 years.

“Skill sets might emerge that aren’t currently specific, so to be able to have students think broadly and be able to learn skills is an important priority for employers.”

And, Laposa added, the chamber wants to make sure that the St. Louis area is a place where people will want to come and stay.

“Young people who are graduating our colleges and universities in the region are interested in finding places with other highly educated people,” he said. “They’re looking for places that are more diverse, that are more welcoming, that are offering opportunities to be open to new ideas.

'There's significant benefits for the region when you have more educated people who are able to purchase goods and are able to find jobs that meet the needs of our employers.' — Greg Laposa, St. Louis Regional Chamber

“So they look to those cities that have that kind of innovative spirit or that educated population, where they feel like they can connect. So certainly as a talent attraction and retention strategy it’s a priority for us, but it’s also obviously beneficial for employers that are looking for the talent to meet their current needs and their needs of the future.”

Laposa said that at this point, the effort plans to target specific groups, including working adults with some college credits but no degree, as well as the unemployed and veterans.

“Rather than be broad and say we’re trying to serve the needs of all students,” he said, “we’ve looked at how we can better support students with unique needs. The needs of returning adults, or the working adults who may consider going back to school, are slightly different potentially, or at least they are unique in certain ways.

“So how do we tackle strategies for supporting working adults and veterans? And the unemployed students, how do we make sure we are making St. Louis an attractive place for talent when they graduate?”

St. Louis has already attracted attention nationwide as a good place for startups. But it also has a less-rosy reputation since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 and the race-based disparities that came to light after that.

Laposa acknowledges that such publicity may not be the best. But he says it can have a positive side as well.

“We’re finding that a lot of college graduates are looking for places where they feel like they can make a difference,” he said.

“So for some of the social issues that we find challenging in our community right now, that we’re working toward improving, this is a very attractive place for young talent. They may find it to be a place where they can connect, because it is a smaller."

From the viewpoint of educational institutions, Laposa said the chamber wants to make sure that barriers to degrees are as low as possible, including cost. State support for public colleges and universities has been dwindling for some time, but he said that doesn’t necessarily mean that the only way to help make schools more affordable is to provide more public dollars.

He emphasized that the chamber’s plan is still evolving, but it will try to involve public and private institutions, both two-year and four-year.

“We can look to increase state funding,” he said, “but we have to be more creative. There are changes we can make at the institutional level, getting the business community more engaged to support the overall initiative.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.