The downside of being an outspoken proponent of Modesto is that whenever news breaks of the latest “Least List” we’ve made, everyone wants to make sure I’m aware we’re on it – as if the list is the final arbiter of Modesto’s gloriousness.
So, as WalletHub released their latest findings on the “Most and Least Educated Cities in America,” where Modesto found itself ranked 146th of 150 cities, I found myself having to make the case yet again for why this list (or any other) shouldn’t define us.
First, it’s important to be clear what this list is actually measuring. It is not an indictment of Modesto’s K-12 school districts, per se. The 100-point weighted scale had two categories; 20 points were given for “Quality of Education and Attainment Gap” (i.e., quality of schools) while the other 80 points were given for individual educational attainment.
So, while our “quality of education ranking” isn’t stellar by any stretch (138 of 150), we out-ranked the Bridgeport, Stamford, Norwalk, Conn. area (No. 140), which eventually landed as the 10th-most educated metro area when all the numbers were tabulated. We fell just two spots behind Raleigh, N.C. (No. 136), which made it as the 13th most educated.
The solution? We need more residents with college and post-graduate degrees.
There are multiple avenues to this outcome, but one long-lamented has been the dreaded “Brain Drain.” For those unfamiliar, the “Brain Drain” is the idea that we educate terrific young people only to send them off to great colleges and careers elsewhere. And they rarely, if ever, return.
It’s not always true. Sometimes we’re lucky and they come home in their 30s looking for a slower pace and bigger yard for their family, but that’s at least five years worth of “points” we’re losing.
But this is not about points on a stupid list (pun intended).
This is about the fact that unemployment rates are nearly two times higher in cities with the lowest educational attainment compared to cities with the highest attainment. Cities that recovered best from the 2008 housing crash, according to one study, have an average educational ranking of 16.3; the cities where the crash still looms largest have an average ranking of 101.
This is about our local economy and our ability to provide basic services as determined by our tax base.
This is about our ability to support local businesses with a population of higher earners with greater disposable income.
This is about non-profits watching funds disappear as wealth is transferred generationally to heirs who no longer live here.
This is about our ability to staff open positions all across this region that local employers are consistently unable to fill with qualified talent.
This is about our ability to recruit new industries and employers that are looking to locate where educated workforces reside.
This is a crisis.
A multi-pronged, cross-sector approach has emerged to tackle homelessness with Focus on Prevention, and rightfully so. Our “Brain Drain” issue demands the same.
A unified voice has risen to fight to keep our water. No less is required to keep our best and brightest minds.
Now is the moment to do it.
Read David Brook’s piece in the New York Times on “The Localist Revolution.” Or Patrick Sisson’s article on the website Curbed documenting “The New Magnetism of Mid-Size Cities” for millenials, or J.D. Vance’s Times op-ed “Why I’m Moving Home.” This sampling of articles highlights how cities like Modesto are primed for success with our spirit of community and collectivism, a combination that is hard to find in mega-metropolises and large bureaucracies.
We must seize this moment and develop intentional, impactful measures to reverse the “Brain Drain” that has plagued our community.
Otherwise, we will find ourselves taking up permanent residence on “least lists” that may not define us but will certainly deny us the glory we deserve.
Reggie Rucker is a former Modesto Bee visiting editor and director of The Engaged Project. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.