Members of the Morehouse College 2002 graduating class sing their school song during commencement ceremonies in Atlanta.Erik S. Lesser AFP/Getty

Cities around the country have been celebrating high achieving black professionals to the detriment of local black residents, who lag in their educational attainment.

To a large extent, cities with the highest educational attainment rates have attracted African-American college graduates from out of state. Washington, Atlanta, and the Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle in North Carolina rank highest in black educational attainment. They are also some of the country's fastest-growing tech, education, and government hubs, easily attracting more college graduates from out of state to fill new jobs.

In cities with small populations of African-Americans, educational attainment can be overstated because of the small sample size. For a more fair assessment, Next America evaluated educational attainment in the top 150 metropolitan areas that are also home to at least 200,000 African-Americans (36 in total).

The cities that come out on top are Washington, where 32 percent of African-Americans hold a Bachelor's degree; Atlanta (28 percent); Raleigh, (28 percent); Nashville (26 percent); and San Francisco (25 percent), according to data from the National Equity Atlas, a data research collaboration between PolicyLink and the University of Southern California's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

Importing a skilled workforce is a strategy that mayors across the country eagerly endorse. While that has allowed these three metro areas to flourish in the short-term, long-term economic growth isn't sustainable for any city that relies mainly on hiring talent from elsewhere, says Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, and former assistant secretary of the Department of Education during the Clinton Administration. The National Equity Atlas projects that 66 percent of jobs in 2020 will require at least some post-secondary education and training.

To build a strong workforce to fill those skilled jobs, education experts say cities will need to also include local children who have so far been left behind, especially low-income and first-generation college students of color.

"We're now at a point in Georgia where you can't sustain those high attainment rates just by importing more people," says McGuire. "The challenges in Georgia, and in metro Atlanta for sure, have a lot more to do with doing a better job with the kids who are here than simply counting on lots of middle class families to move here and solve the demands of employers that way."

Educated transplants mask some of the actual low attainment levels of local students in these cities. In Washington, for example, the National Equity Atlas data shows that disparities exist between the core district and the metro area that spans 21 counties in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. In the Washington metro area, 30 percent of the U.S.-born black population holds a bachelor's degree or higher, while only 22 percent within the District do.

Data from the District's State Education Office and D.C. Public Schools shows that of every 100 students in public or charter schools, 43 graduate within five years, 29 enroll in a post-secondary program, and only 9 ultimately attain a certificate or degree.

By 2020, the National Equity Atlas forecasts that 45 percent of jobs in the Washington metro area (and 59 percent in the District) will require at least a four-year degree.

"It's a very serious issue. You see buildings are being built, highrises and new industries, new people—there's a lot of life and vitality in this city," says Michelle Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. "But it's unfortunate that many of the people who grow up in this area or have gone to public schools in this area are not educated to ultimately be able to take advantage of all of these opportunities."

Increasingly, black students in the city will need some form of post-secondary education to keep up with workforce demands and future job growth. By 2020, the National Equity Atlas forecasts that 45 percent of jobs in the Washington metro area (and 59 percent in the District) will require at least a four-year degree. Half of new jobs in the metro area over that same period will require at least an associate's degree.

"Those statistics are most distressing when you look at schools which have a high concentration of low income people of color, primarily African-Americans," Cooper said. "That is a challenge because we all know people who earn a post-secondary degree or a credential tend to reap larger benefits in the workforce, in the economy. It saddens me that many of the native-born D.C. population are never really equipped to take full advantage of that."

Overall, high school graduation rates for African-Americans are much higher and have increased steadily over the past decades. In each of the 36 cities Next America analyzed, 81 percent or more of the black population holds at least a high school diploma. But local education leaders say high school graduation rates alone are nothing to celebrate. They argue that such an achievement means little if it doesn't also show that students have been adequately prepared for either the workforce or college.

"If you have a large minority population that is not getting a college education, they're not going to get the good jobs and contribute to the economy the way a college graduate can do."

William Velez, sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

"There hasn't been much agreement or alignment on what being college-ready means between K-12 and higher education," McGuire said. "If there were, we might expect to see much smaller enrollment in remedial courses on campus. There's a disconnect there that hasn't been resolved, and it's going to take time. If having a high school diploma does not in and of itself correlate with being ready, that's a big problem."

Milwaukee is feeling the effects of this inherent conflict. As a city, it ranks in the bottom five for both high school and college attainment. Only 14 percent of its black population holds a four-year degree and 82 percent has a high school diploma. Many of the systemic challenges that face its high school students contribute to and compound the low attainment levels after they graduate, said William Velez, sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"Our black students are going to Milwaukee public schools but not all of those schools are the best. When they get to college, if they get to college, they start under-prepared, so they have a higher dropout rate," Velez said. "We also have a high poverty rate in Milwaukee among black people, and we have a high incarceration rate for black males. The combination of all of those factors contributes to the low graduation rate for black students."

UW-Milwaukee has made efforts to improve both their first-year outreach and remedial courses to help students stay enrolled. Unlike other universities that offer remedial programs, they make sure courses count for credit towards a student's degree, a step Velez says has already yielded some progress in improving retention.

"If you have a large minority population that is not getting a college education," Velez says, "they're not going to get the good jobs and contribute to the economy the way a college graduate can do. We have real challenges here in Milwaukee."

The top three cities for college attainment—Washington, Atlanta and Raleigh—create enormous opportunity but represent a harbinger for potential widening inequality. To sustain and fuel future economic growth, leaders will need to unlock the exisiting workforce potential that already exists in their cities beyond simply recruiting graduates elsewhere.

This story is part of our Next America: Workforce project, which is supported by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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