An Educated City: How Mayors Can Ensure City Residents Succeed in College and Beyond

City leaders grapple with building meaningful postsecondary educational pathways for all their residents, understanding the link between their success and the city’s success.

(pictured from left to right) Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, YEF Director Clifford Johnson, San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Nashville & Davidson County Mayor Megan Barry at the Mayors' Institute event Promoting Postsecondary Success in Louisville.

(pictured from left to right) Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, YEF Director Clifford Johnson, San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Nashville & Davidson County Mayor Megan Barry at the Mayors’ Institute event Promoting Postsecondary Success in Louisville.

As part of NLC’s recent Mayors’ Institute event in Louisville, Kentucky, Promoting Postsecondary Success, the mayors of Louisville, Nashville, Newark and San Antonio engaged in conversations about strategies for providing educational options and support for youth and adults that help them succeed beyond high school and gain meaningful educational and workforce experiences. What follows is an account of how four cities are tackling educational attainment, improving pathways and forging new partnerships with their local business and higher education communities to create a thriving economy through access to educational opportunities.

“People in our cities are saying ‘I do not feel connected to a future and I do not have hope for the future.’ In building a culture of college-going we need to build this connection to all of our citizens,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who hosted the event. Mayors know that to succeed in the modern economy, their residents need pathways to education and training beyond high school. “Demographics are destiny – 98 percent of GDP growth in our country is attributed to our cities,” Fischer said.

Louisville’s leaders hope to integrate, connect and amplify the options the city’s residents have to find their path to educational attainment. Mayor Fischer and his team want to use the 55,000 Degrees Campaign – as well as exploring other levers including the Harvard By All Means Project and Say Yes to Education initiative – to build this culture of opportunity.

The City of Newark is also exploring pathways to align its education efforts to local workforce development. “You have to have a pipeline and to reach down into the high schools and build pathways,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Additionally, the city is looking at strengthening partnerships and engagement with employers to support training, education and workforce opportunities. “We need to change the perspective of the workforce in the city,” Baraka said.

The mayor, in coordination with the Newark City of Learning Collaborative at Rutgers University-Newark, the Newark Alliance and the Victoria Foundation, seeks to connect home-grown talent to meaningful educational opportunities and eventual employment. With the city’s work still in the early stages, the Newark City of Learning Collaborative launched a Summer Leadership Institute that provided employment opportunities for 3,000 Newark residents, and worked with 400 students to help build the skills needed to apply to and succeed in college.

Cities are also using existing community-based initiatives as springboards to greater engagement and programming for targeted populations. San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor is dedicated to reaching young men of color in her city. “San Antonio has a history of investing in student success… (and) has seen tremendous improvements in high school graduation rates in recent years, a tribute to the collective work of the areas’ many school districts and their intense focus on graduating more students,” Taylor said.

Using Promise Zone as a starting point, Mayor Taylor in partnership with the Alamo Colleges – the San Antonio-area community college system – began programs that bridge learning and workforce training known as Promise Zone to Work. The city has used the Promise Zone model to address the need of young men of color increase opportunities and build a strong postsecondary pathway. Taylor’s efforts use data to better understand what interventions and programming are proving to best serve this target population.

Like Taylor, Mayor Megan Barry of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County uses her city’s Promise Zone efforts to increase opportunities for educational attainment and workforce success. “We believe this work will help us pilot a strategy that leverages the various resources we have in Nashville to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in postsecondary attainment rates and financial wellness, which we feel are critical components that contribute to disparities in longer-term outcomes, such as employment, income, and poverty,” Barry said.

Barry looks to identify overarching goals the city can coalesce around and produce an ecosystem that supports residents. Building off existing efforts that serve adults, Nashville seeks a unified approach that creates meaningful pathways to postsecondary success.

With support from the Lumina Foundation, these cities will continue building and strengthening strategies to provide access points, support and guidance that allow their residents to gain the education and training needed to succeed. In the coming months, NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families will provide updates on these cities’ work and develop resources cities can use to improve postsecondary educational attainment for their residents.

About the author: Dana D’Orazio is a program manager with the NLC YEF Institute’s Education and Expanded Learning team.