Enter the Young: What the Influx of Young Talent to Inner Cities Means for Education Reform (Part 1 of 3)

Enter the young, yeah
Yeah, they’ve learned how to think
Enter the young, yeah
More than you think they think
Not only learned to think, but to care
Not only learned to think, but to dare
Enter the young

The Association

According to a new report by Joe Cortright at City Observatory, the young and college educated are increasingly moving to inner cities, signaling an opportunity to accelerate education reform efforts in the areas that need them most while raising critical questions about race, class, and gentrification.

Cortright’s key finding is that the number of 25-34 year olds with a bachelor’s degree or higher moving to urban centers has increased an astounding 37 percent in the last decade, making this demographic more than twice as likely as all residents of metro areas to live in the inner city. Young and educated workers are vital to the private sector knowledge economy; they fuel entrepreneurial activity and, when they hit critical mass, attract companies that rely on their abilities.

The same is true in education. For successful national education nonprofits, access to talent is a driving factor in decisions to expand to new cities. During my tenure at Education Pioneers, the organization expanded from four sites to nine. We made expansion decisions based not only on if local talent was available, but also on whether we were confident that they’d prefer to work in a particular metro area.

Now, at Bellwether, I advise city-based education funds and intermediary organizations, and they all rank attracting the best organizations and brightest individuals as their top focus areas. Nearly every CEO, superintendent, or executive director that I’ve talked with has cited finding and keeping good people as a priority for executing his or her mission.

At the city level, efforts to build thriving and dynamic education ecosystems stand to benefit from this influx of new educated talent. These young people could help fuel the schools, school systems, and nonprofits that aim to improve academic outcomes for kids. Cities like New Orleans and Indianapolis are leading the way with city-based intermediary organizations that direct resources toward high-impact activities. New Schools for New Orleans and The Mind Trust smartly invest heavily in the recruitment and retention of talent as a critical component of their long-term success.

This demographic shift is especially good news for mid-sized cities where opportunity gaps are just as daunting as in larger metro areas but where reform efforts have struggled because those cities lack the climate, culture, diversity, and/or economic vibrancy to attract the caliber of talent needed to execute ambitious plans. According to Cortright, cities like Houston, Denver, Baltimore, and St. Louis are attracting young educated talent at a greater rate that the national average. The infusion of a critical demographic can even occur amidst larger, contrary trends. Metros such as New Orleans, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, which experienced overall population declines, saw growth in the number of young and educated workers moving to their city centers over the past decade.

Even where this influx of talent doesn’t go directly to education reform efforts, it could influence broader civic engagement on education issues. The trend coupled with an increasing number of college students exposed to education issues through organizations such as Teach for America, Students for Education Reform, and their detractors may result in a constituency more informed and involved in education issues than it has been in the past. This could translate into elected officials and school board members capable of realizing smart and ambitious reform efforts.

I tend to be optimistic about news like this, but for all the potential upsides there are significant risks familiar to those who live or work in urban areas, specifically, gentrification and the race-class tensions that underpin it.

Cortright doesn’t dive into the racial breakdown of the migration patterns in his report, but inner cities are highly segregated by race and we know white students earn bachelors and advanced degrees at much higher rates than students of color. If these two patterns hold true, we’re looking at a lot more young, educated, white people with expanding earning potential moving into areas historically populated by poor people of color.

Next week, I’ll raise some questions about what this could mean for inner city communities and their schools.