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The audacity of the Talent Dividend

Caroline Altman Smith and Bill Moses of the Kresge Foundation
Caroline Altman Smith and Bill Moses of the Kresge Foundation -
At its heart, the Talent Dividend is all about small changes making a big impact. 
 
The 57 communities competing for the $1 million Prize have a modest goal in mind: boosting the number of college degrees in their city by one percentage point. If every participating city meets that goal, it could raise national earnings by a stunning $124 billion.
 
The Kresge Foundation, one of the sponsors of the prize along with the Lumina Foundation, had never funded a competitive prize before. But with so much potential return from such a relatively small investment, the Talent Dividend Prize was clearly an exceptional opportunity. The impact would be much greater, for example, than simply funding the same amount of college scholarships, says Kresge Program Director for Education Bill Moses.
 
"The Kresge Foundation liked the excitement and audacity of the idea," he says. "We wanted to see how cities throughout America could begin to improve college graduation rates and degree production locally."
 
Attacking the issue at the community level, rather than focusing on individual school districts or, on the broader end of the spectrum, statewide allows conversations to happen between groups that often don't work together, he adds. For example, the business community can work with community colleges to make sure schools produce graduates with the types of degrees businesses need to hire. The K-12 community can work more closely with higher education to align curriculum and goals. The philanthropic community can determine if scholarships are the most effective way to increase college attainment, or if funding could be used more creatively.
 
Kresge commissioned research from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which found that working at the city level would be a valuable way to increase educational attainment. Some cities, notably El Paso and Houston, have done an especially good job at working together on a community level.
 
"It shaped our thinking about the value of working with communities," says Caroline Altman Smith, Senior Program Officer for Education for the Kresge Foundation. "We have been very pleased with how many active alignments have happened."
 
Altman Smith points out that the short run of the Talent Dividend Prize requires cities to look at focused, short-term solutions instead of drawn-out plans that might take years to pay off. For example, cities can examine why people who are "near-degreed" have not finished their education and develop collaborative solutions to help those people close the gap and earn their degree. Once productive collaborations are formed around such issues, bigger conversations about removing systemic hurdles happen naturally.
 
"Sometimes simple solutions can be easier to find than people may think," says Moses.
 
Kresge is not funding the initiatives that communities are undertaking to pursue the Talent Dividend Prize; instead, they issued $10,000 challenge grants to support local fundraising efforts to continue conversations and planning at the 57 competing cities. (That's in addition to the $1 million Prize.) The idea is for communities to use their own resources, so any changes they make are more likely to be sustainable than those funded lavishly for a couple of years.
 
Ideally, all 57 of the cities who are competing for the Talent Dividend Prize will see a rise in degrees awarded locally. Altman Smith says she would be thrilled to see cities that are not the "usual suspects" -- places that have struggled with the educational attainment of their residents -- truly innovate and be successful at meeting the challenge. 
 
Moses says that changing the culture around educational attainment in the participating cities would be an exciting result. 
 
"If we can keep the excitement, interest and focus on college completion as both an important part of American global competitiveness and as the best way to improve individual opportunity, that would really be great," he says. "If we would have the 57 cities be among the cities which are growing in college completions, that would be a success."


Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance journalist.
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