When Memphian Bradley Payne was in college, he got a job offer he couldn't refuse: art director for a wholesale jewelry company.
"I quit school, because the job required more time than I could commit to school and a job, and I had bills to pay," he says.
Payne tried to go back to school a few years later, even landing a scholarship to the Memphis College of Art. But then a death in his family caused him to miss an important mid-term exam, ensuring he would fail the course. Instead, he dropped out.
"I've done pretty well with my work experience as my education, but I would like to be able to say I am a college graduate," he says.
The particulars may differ, but Payne's story is far from unique. In the Memphis metropolitan area, about 135,000 people have some college but not a degree. Add that number to a 62 percent graduation rate at Memphis City Schools, and Memphis finds itself ranked 48th out of the top 51 metropolitan areas in college attainment.
But an initiative from Leadership Memphis aims to change that by increasing the number of college graduates in the metro area by one percentage point — to 24.7 percent — over the next five years.
"Even if we do that, three out of four people will still not have a college degree," says David Williams, president and CEO of Leadership Memphis. "If we do that, according to CEOs for Cities, it could mean a $1 billion annual talent dividend for our community."
According to research done by Joe Cortright for CEOs for Cities, even a small change in the little things — driving one mile less each day or increasing educational attainment for a small number of people — can make a big difference. Cortright says that increasing college attainment by just one percentage point in Memphis would result in a $1 billion "talent dividend," or an additional $1 billion in personal income in the metro economy.
While long-range planning is in the beginning stages, Leadership Memphis is jumpstarting the educational initiative with "100 Things in 100 Days," relatively simple ideas that can be implemented quickly.
The Memphis Urban League plans to ensure that 100 high school seniors have taken an ACT workshop this fall and applied to at least five colleges, three of them before Thanksgiving break.
"One of the things we've talked about is making sure we're communicating the benefits of college. We deal with families in which no one has ever gone to college," says Memphis Urban League president and Memphis City Schools board member Tomeka Hart.
With Buckman Laboratories board chair Kathy Buckman Gibson, Hart is leading the steering council for the talent dividend initiative.
"That's not a conversation they're having. How do we get them to see college not just as a cost but as a benefit?" Hart says.
But many of the 100 Days ideas are focused on what Hart calls "low-hanging fruit," people such as Payne who never finished college.
At Buckman Laboratories, they are going to make sure employees know about their tuition reimbursement program. The city of Memphis plans to do something similar for city employees who started but never finished college.
Critics of the talent dividend initiative say that higher education is not for everyone and that the so-called dividend would come from higher-paying jobs that Memphis simply doesn't have.
The chairs are aware of those concerns.
"You don't just leave high school and say, I'm going to get a job," Hart says. "When you have the Department of Labor telling you that everyone has to have a post-secondary education, you can no longer say that post-secondary is not for everybody. That job is gone. Even mechanics have to know computers."
It's estimated that roughly 68 percent of the jobs created between now and 2018 will require a college degree. But Hart isn't as concerned with a four-year degree as getting Memphians into any kind of post-secondary education.
The Memphis Urban League's mission is to remove social and economic barriers through education, career development, wealth accumulation, and home ownership.
"If all we do is help people find a minimum-wage job, that's not really life-changing," Hart says. "If I can get them to imagine a world where they can sit through a six-month, nine-month, or two-year program, their life will be much different."
There is also a question of what happens once those people graduate from college.
"What happens if you train me for a job that's not here?" Hart asks. "I'm going to go find that job."
Many of the people interviewed for this story talked about not feeling like college was the right fit for them or leaving school initially for a job. Even though some said they still were interested in having a degree, it's difficult to justify the time and the expense when the personal benefit could be minimal.
But perhaps it's more instructive to think about the larger system, a city in which a large majority of adults are currently considered undereducated.
"We've got to move the entire system," Hart says. "If people are more educated, it affects the crime rate. That helps to have more businesses here. That helps other people move here, which, in turn, helps the college attainment rate.
"This is one of the ways the moving parts can move in the right direction."
For more on this and other topics, visit Mary Cashiola's "In the Bluff" blog at memphisflyer.com/blogs/InTheBluff/.