Leadership and Collaboration: Staples of Success

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Discussions at a recent gathering of teams from 11 cities pursuing postsecondary success initiatives pointed once again to the centrality of twinning strong leadership and collaboration in order to launch and succeed on a large scale.

Jerry Abramson, outgoing mayor of host city Louisville, Kentucky, set the tone and a high bar in terms of leadership.  Indeed, Mayor Abramson speaks about postsecondary success with a fervor matching that of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.   If and as more mayors speak out similarly and exercise their leadership and convening powers – steps with which we at the National League of Cities have pledged to help – more scenes of concerted effort are likely to emerge around the nation.

Mayor Abramson recounted Louisville’s steps along the way to its current high level of activity, which he has consistently led.  Two such steps included:

  • The “Close the Deal” mentoring/advising initiative, in which the city and others recruited businesspeople, recent graduates, and higher education professionals to meet with high school students to explain the college application process and the benefits of pursuing higher education.  This effort alone increased the rate of applications in some high schools from 25% to more than 60%; and
  • The Mayor’s Education Roundtable – a meeting ground for the top leaders of local higher education institutions plus school superintendents and business and civic leaders, all focused on “growing the pie” of college grads.  This strategy group upped the ante from college admissions to persistence to completion and signed the Greater Louisville Education Commitment after 18 months’ effort.

The Roundtable and other previous efforts gave birth to Louisville’s brand new 55,000 Degrees initiative – the name expresses the goal – backed by $2 million in private funding for its first three years of operation.   The new initiative is the embodiment of the signed Commitment. As the Mayor says, the purpose of 55,000 Degrees is “not just to turn up the heat on us all,” but to put the pieces together locally that will lead to 40,000 more bachelor’s degrees and 15,000 more associate degrees over the next ten years.  A key early target for 55,000 Degrees:  the 90,000 Louisville residents who have completed some college and might benefit from assistance to finish – this consistent with the Lumina Foundation’s Adult Degree Completion.  Mary Gwen Wheeler, longtime education adviser to the mayor, will serve as interim director.

Notably, Louisville determined to establish 55,000 Degrees as an initiative outside government, its funding pooled in an account at the local community foundation.  Driving these decisions were the usual uncertainties surrounding a mayoral transition – de-linking from a particular mayoral administration greatly minimized the uncertainties.  With a board combining civic, education, and business leaders including at least one Fortune 500 CEO and small business leaders as well, the oversight and strategic connections for the initiative are strong.  It bears watching, along with several other new initiatives launched recently as part of the NLC-Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Communities Learning in Partnership (CLIP) initiative – Bridge to Success in San Francisco, Mesa Counts on College in Arizona, and similar efforts in Riverside, CA and New York City.