They are called the Greatest Generation, the generation that sacrificed so much, accomplished so much and gave so much to a grateful nation.
Sixteen million American men and women fought in World War II. As they started coming home in 1944, the United States created the GI Bill, a historic piece of legislation that established a number of benefits for veterans, including one to attend college.
Nearly 50 percent of these servicemen and women took advantage of the GI Bill education benefit. More than 7.8 million college degrees were awarded from 1944 through 1956 — 2.2 million four-year degrees and 5.6 million associate degrees. The GI Bill produced more than 450,000 engineers, 250,000 teachers and 65,000 physicians. At that time, America became the country with the highest percentage of holders of college degrees among its population.
Today, America is ranked 10th in college attainment (40 percent) behind countries such as Canada (56 percent), South Korea (56 percent) and Japan (54 percent). The U.S. would have to add 1 million college degrees per year through 2025, on top of the 2 million degrees already awarded annually, to reach 56 percent.
College attainment is a local issue as well as a national one.
Memphis is ranked 48th among the 51 largest metropolitan areas in percentage of the population with a college degree. Fewer than one in four people in the Memphis metropolitan statistical area (23.7 percent) holds a college degree.
Cities in which at least 40 percent of their population have a college degree share another statistic: Those cities most often have the highest median household incomes. Those cities get it. They make education — including higher education — a priority. Why? Education is an economic driver. Higher education economically differentiates cities.
Recently, Memphis became one of 19 cities to form the National Talent Dividend Network , focused on increasing college attainment by one percentage point in each community. According to Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities, that small increase in college attainment in the Memphis region would realize nearly a $1 billion annual “talent dividend.” (Each additional percentage point increase in college attainment yields an increase of $763 in per- capita income for the metropolitan statistical area.) That was enough for the board of Leadership Memphis to create and take on leadership of the Memphis Talent Dividend: College Attainment Initiative.
On May 14, more than a hundred people gathered at the Baptist College of Health Sciences to begin the Memphis Talent Dividend work. The initiative comprises six collaboratives (higher education, youth organizations, business, media, community and faith), each striving to increase college attainment. Together we will work toward increases in five baseline metrics: the high school graduation rate, the college enrollment rate, the college continuation rate, the college completion rate and the college graduate retention rate.
From Aug. 11 through Nov. 18, the Memphis Talent Dividend will promote a campaign called “100 Things in 100 Days to Increase College Attainment.” The important point about this campaign is that you can be a part of it.
The key is to spend a few minutes in intentional thought about what you can do as an individual, a business owner, a civic leader, a parent, a sibling, an elected official — whatever perspective you choose — to increase college attainment. Some examples of early community commitment include:
The Public Library and Information Center will produce a college fair.
The University of Phoenix will donate six scholarships to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis.
The city of Memphis will identify employees with some college experience and encourage them to use the city tuition reimbursement benefit to re-enroll in college.
Buckman will conduct a campaign to encourage employees to use their tuition reimbursement benefit.
The Memphis Urban League will take 100 high school students to a college campus.
WHBQ-TV Channel 13 will air 100 public service announcements about the importance of college.
The list of “100 Things” is growing.
Individuals can be a mentor, a tutor or even baby-sit someone’s child so that parent can attend class. Individuals can help a high school student prepare for an ACT exam or fill out a college application. Individuals can be an ear, an extra set of hands or even a foot in the rear end of a student who needs their help.
So, my challenge to you is do something. Do something to help someone in college successfully complete college. If you know a young person who should be in college, help them get to college. If you know someone who started, but didn’t finish college, help them finish college. Show them you know the meaning of sacrifice, accomplishment and giving.
It stands to reason that if we work together, we will create the next greatest generation. Anyone can enlist.
David Williams is president and CEO of Leadership Memphis.