Education and the Future of the St. Louis Region

by Anne Klein, Vice President, Education Strategies | Jun 04, 2015

This article was originally published by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.

No factor is more crucial to the St. Louis region’s future economic vitality and competitive position in the global marketplace than education.  Employment, earnings and community wealth increase as educational attainment levels increase.

In today’s knowledge-based economy, where businesses and economic developers rely on college attainment statistics to assess workforce quality, St. Louis must position itself with a well-educated talent pool to compete with other metropolitan regions.  When companies are comparing potential sites for expansion or relocation, cities that rank in the top ten, as measured by percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher, have a distinct advantage.  Our region currently ranks 14th among the nation’s largest 20 metropolitan areas in terms of degree attainment.  The St. Louis Regional Chamber has set a goal of lifting the St. Louis region into the top ten by 2025.  Doing so will require 75,000 additional people to finish college and choose to live and work in St. Louis.

As St. Louis works to increase the education level of its workforce, recent data reveals some good news: the region has increased the number of adults 25 years and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2.6 percentage points from 2010 to 2013.  This puts us third in the nation in percentage point increase.

However, we are not alone in the pursuit of increased levels of educational attainment.  There are other strong competitors in the field, especially among some of the smaller metro regions.  When ranked within the 50 peer communities identified by East-West Gateway, St. Louis’ rank for percent of adults with a bachelor degree or higher falls to 22nd

According to reports from The Lumina Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropic organization focused solely on college access and degree attainment, by 2020 two-thirds of all jobs will require postsecondary education.  With the current percent of our adults holding a bachelor’s degree or higher at 32.5, we will not have the skilled workforce needed in the St. Louis region to meet this rising demand.

While we focus on remaining competitive in the global arena, we should be mindful of another challenge going forward --- population growth.  Just over 2.8 million people call St. Louis home, making it the nation’s 19th largest metropolitan area, down from 18th just since 2010.  But other regions such as Denver are growing rapidly and could soon knock St. Louis out of that Top 20 tier if our own population continues to stagnate. 

One of the spaces where St. Louis shows some real strength when looking at education indicators is in the early years.  St. Louis ranks 7th among the 50 metropolitan areas selected for comparison by East-West Gateway in terms of percent of 3-and 4-year olds enrolled in preschool.  Investing in high quality early learning has been shown to have a direct impact on a child’s future success in education and in life.

Another education measure where our region demonstrates some strength compared to other metro areas is the percentage of adults with an associate’s degree as the highest level of educational attainment.  The St. Louis region ranks 15th.   When compared to other areas in the Midwest, St. Louis is in an even better position.  Only Minneapolis ranks higher than St. Louis with a percentage of 9.8 compared to our 8.7.

Ultimately, enhancing education levels benefits everyone in the St. Louis region, underscoring the urgency of that goal and the need for a collaborative effort by employers, educators and our community to achieve it.