Thursday, October 04, 2012

Attractive Pittsburgh Promise

Perhaps you have heard of the Kalamazoo Promise. If your children attend the city's public schools, they will go to college for free. The method to the madness:

Putting kids through college is viewed as a means to an end. "It was primarily seen as an economic development proposal by the donor," said Mr. Bartik.

The program is an arrow in the quiver of economic development pros, said Mr. Lee. The pitch: "If you put a business in Kalamazoo, Mich., any employee has the option of having the college tuition guaranteed for their children," he said.

As yet, no big business has moved its headquarters or opened a new plant in Kalamazoo as a result of the promise. School district enrollment, though, has jumped by 987 new students, to 11,367.

Unintended benefits aside, the Kalamazoo Promise is an attraction strategy. The Pittsburgh Promise was modeled on Kalamazoo's initiative. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl sold the program as a means to retention. He wanted to arrest the population decline of the City of Pittsburgh. All hail the brain drain boondoggle.

Today, The Atlantic Cities takes a look at the Pittsburgh Promise and its struggles. I want to highlight the comments of John Austin and Alan Berube:

“You need a program that’s simple, blunt, and elegant,” Austin says, which is why the Kalamazoo Promise seems to have worked well in Kalamazoo though it’s been less successful in places such as Pittsburgh and New Haven. "The obscurity and opaqueness of some of these other college guarantees - which aren’t understood by everybody and not everybody qualifies - doesn’t become the economic development success it can be."

And ...

"Cities try all sorts of stupid economic development projects in an effort to grow jobs and grow residents," Berube says. "They build convention centers and hotels and they throw money at developers for stadiums when research has shown that none of those things have proven to provide any real long-term economic success."

Austin questions the marketing strategy. Berube takes on the efficacy of the program. Are both Promises empty? He leaves that as an open question:

"At least they’re aiming at the right thing. Whether they’re effective in growing that thing in the long run? We don’t know that yet."

I think both Austin and Berube miss the point. With the Promise, Pittsburgh isn't aiming at investing in human capital. As for the marketing problem, the goal is wrong. A focus on attraction instead of retention would result in a different campaign. Along comes a different campaign for the Pittsburgh Promise:

Predicting that its $40,000 college scholarships will be a powerful draw, The Pittsburgh Promise today will announce a campaign to attract Hispanic immigrants to the city and the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Saleem Ghubril, the Promise's executive director, said the goal will be to recruit immigrants now living in cities within a 300-mile radius of Pittsburgh. The announcement will be made at the Promise's annual report to the community, scheduled for 10 a.m. at the South Side offices of American Eagle Outfitters.

The initiative could help the Promise address the thorny challenge of boosting school district enrollment. It also complements recent efforts by other groups, including Vibrant Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, to boost the city's foreign-born population.

I suspect this is what Berube would call a "stupid economic development project" to grow residents. I have a different angle. I recently completed some research for Global Cleveland about attracting more Latinos to Northeast Ohio. Latino domestic migration tends to be overshadowed by immigration. And when we talk about workforce development, we think locally. I told Global Cleveland that everyone was overlooking a tremendous opportunity.

A Penn State Lehigh Valley study ("2008 Portrait of Latino Business Owners and Professionals") detailed intergenerational mobility aspirations among Latinos residing in the area. Latinos were leaving cities such as Allentown out of frustration. An academic article (“Immigrant Gateways and Hispanic Migration to New Destinations”) confirmed this observation as a nationwide pattern. Latinos are moving to improve family human capital and economic status.

Pittsburgh Public Schools need fixing. There are other programs addressing these problems. Meanwhile, Latinos are relocating in search of upward mobility, for themselves and their children. The Pittsburgh Promise is an attractive carrot. The target market just switched from Pittsburgh city neighborhoods to Eastern Pennsylvania. It may or may not increase the foreign-born population (many of Latinos migrating domestically are already second or third generation immigrants). Does it matter?

Latino ambition can find expression in Pittsburgh's urban neighborhoods. This, not increasing enrollments, is economic development. In a sense, Berube and I are on the same page. I'm casting a wider net when I talk about improving human capital. That's how I think when I focus on talent attraction instead of retention.

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