What’s it mean to be “educated”?

As Election Day hurtles towards us, it has become all too clear that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation—and the national media are consequently bursting with reports from the Buckeye State. Here’s the story of one Ohio city that carries a lesson for the rest of America: Dayton has a long tradition of innovation (think airplanes, pull-tabs, electric starters, cash registers, and even teacher unions). Yet, as the innovations of one era slip into obsolescence in the next, the Gem City has struggled economically and demographically. The hope for Dayton’s revival comes from innovation. And this time the innovation is in education—how we prepare people for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

By 2018, almost two-thirds of American jobs will require at least a sub-baccalaureate credential, (post-secondary certificate, associate’s degree, state-issued education credential, corporate certificate, or badge among others). Dayton, according to a fine piece in the Lumina Foundation’s fall edition of Focus Magazine, is quickly becoming a national leader in preparing “sub-baccalaureate graduates.”

Dayton’s economic struggles peaked in 2009. That’s when the New York Times reported that the city and its surrounding area faced a vortex of “economic and social change.” Specifically,

the area’s job total has fallen 12 percent since 2000, while about half of its factory jobs—38,000 out of 79,000—have disappeared this decade. Not only have large G.M. and Delphi plants closed, but NCR, long the city’s corporate jewel, recently announced that it would move its headquarters to the Atlanta area.

In a true Midwestern can-do spirit, a coalition of business leaders, higher-education institutions, nonprofits, K-12 institutions, local governments, and the Wright Patterson Air Force Base (the Dayton area’s largest employer) have mobilized to help the area’s citizens transition to the changing job opportunities of the twenty-first century. That meant changing the preparation and credentialing system which, as in so many places, had long been bifurcated. A small percentage of Ohio students would go to four-year colleges and beyond (often leaving the state); but most area high school graduates would move into well-paying factory or service sector jobs without further education.

But the world has changed. As Stefanie Sanford recently told Tom Friedman, “the high-wage, medium-skilled job is over.” Or as Lumina reports, “The widely held, almost reflexive definition of college – four-year, on campus, residential experience leading to a bachelor’s degree – is no longer sufficient. It’s not broad enough, not flexible enough, just not good enough to work for millions of people, or for the nation as a whole.”

According to Tom Lasley, former dean of education at the University of Dayton and now head of Dayton’s Learn to Earn initiative (an umbrella organization coordinating the city’s education- and workforce- development efforts), “new pathways are a necessary alternative to the all-or-nothing thinking that has persistently defined postsecondary success as bachelor’s attainment.”

The anchor organization leading the movement towards a more targeted and work-based education in Dayton is Sinclair Community College (long headed by Fordham board chair David Ponitz). With more than 22,000 students, Sinclair is the state’s largest community college. More than half of all adults in the Dayton area have enrolled there at some point in their lives. Current Sinclair president Steven Johnson argues that “society has been calling for modularization education for a couple of decades…That’s what certificates are.”

Sinclair awarded about 4,300 degrees and certificates in 2011-12, and it offers 172 different degree and certificate programs. Sinclair adjusts its offerings to the needs of the local economy, so its students can find meaningful work, raise families, and pay taxes. Just this week, Sinclair and two partner colleges were awarded a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to “create a revolutionary change in how information technology training is conducted.”

The president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, Phil Parker, shared with Lumina how businesses see education. “To business leaders, education is a means to an end,” Parker explained. “It provides a capable, qualified workforce. Ultimately, it’s about people getting a job, being successful and having a great quality of life they can share with their family…That’s a different mindset from education being the end product.”

Dayton has been knocked down, but it is certainly not out. It is a community undergoing a revitalization, driven by reconceptualization of what it means to be educated.  Dayton’s efforts surely warrant the Lumina Foundation’s attention—but they’re also something the rest of the country should pay attention to.

A version of this editorial appeared on the Ohio Gadfly Daily blog.

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