Written by Dave Claborn
Ohio State Marion Director of Community Relations & Development
"When will we get an Olive Garden?" How many times have you heard that question asked here in Marion? I've lost track. The answer is, probably not until the community's demographics improve - that is, education levels and family incomes increase. The Darden Group (the company that owns Olive Garden restaurants) and virtually every other major retailer makes facility location decisions based on the numbers - the percentage of college degrees in a community, average household income and other factors relevant to their business.
Major employers go through a similar exercise when looking for a new location. Does the community have an adequate supply of engineers, technicians, knowledge workers? Can the community attract the managers and high-functioning workforce required in today's advanced manufacturing environment?
They don't have to guess. The numbers are available at the click of a computer mouse. If you Google "American Factfinder" and "educational attainment" you'll find the U.S. Census has it spelled out for any part of the country - even Marion, Ohio.
The New York Times took a look at the data in a May 30 article titled "A Gap in College Graduates Leaves Some Cities Behind." Author Sabrina Tavernise writes, "Just 24 percent of the adult residents of metropolitan Dayton have four-year degrees, well below the average of 32 percent for American metro areas...Like many Rust Belt cities, it is captive of its rich manufacturing past, when well-paying jobs were plentiful and landing one without a college degree was easy."
She could as easily have written about Marion, Ohio, except that Marion County's bachelor degree attainment rate is 11.1 percent in the 2010 survey, less than half the Dayton number and about a third of the U.S. college graduate number. The median per capita earnings for adults 25 and older in Marion county is $28,107, compared to a U.S. average of $33,298 - or compared to, for example, Delaware County where half the adult residents have a bachelor's degree or higher and where average earnings are close to $52,000.
It is tempting to read these numbers and despair, but that's not how I read them. Yes, Marion has a low number of college graduates, but that's not because, as a community, we've been lax in our civic development. On the contrary, Marion, perhaps more than many other communities, has had that rich history of manufacturing. We made the biggest machines in the world here. Manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and a high school education, or less, was just fine to make a nice middle-class income. Going to college may have meant giving up four or more good earning years. And so, as a community, we developed a culture that fit the economic realities.
But now, those realities have changed. A college education is now the entry ticket to today's knowledge economy. The working class is being replaced by the creative class.
The good news is Marion is blessed with the educational infrastructure that can take us to that new economy. We are fortunate to have our own campus of The Ohio State University here. Not to mention the unique assets of Marion Technical College, Tri-Rivers Career Center and city and county school systems that can turn out world-class students. The tools are here. We only need to support and exploit them properly.
One way we're doing that at Ohio State Marion is through the "GoBuck$" program. We've dedicated some of the endowment dollars made possible through George Alber's gift some years ago to a program that awards small pieces of tuition to K-12 students who meet attendance and achievement goals in the Marion City Schools. Now, after two years, we're seeing some dramatic results. In the first year of the program, the Marion City Schools logged 30,000 additional student days and surpassed the state benchmark for attendance. We've had over a dozen students bring their awards to us and enroll at Ohio State - in some cases, students among the top five percent of their class. That program is instilling the culture of higher education in Marion students at a young age-and over time, we believe, will build the college graduate numbers in our community.
Now, through a recent challenge gift from Art and Anne Lowe of Marion, the GoBuck$ program can be extended into the county schools. The Lowe family has pledged $275,000 which is enough to begin the GoBuck$ tuition incentive program on a limited basis in Ridgedale, Pleasant, Elgin, River Valley and the Marion Catholic schools. To extend it into all grades, though, we'll need to add to the endowment Ann and Art Lowe have created.
Just as Marion adapted to past economic realities, we will adapt again. With forward-looking citizens like the Lowes and programs like GoBuck$, demographics doesn't have to equal destiny. We can change our demographics and our destiny through education.
Dave Claborn is Director of Development & Community Relations at The Ohio State University at Marion