The text of a recent speech by Sandra Pianalto crossed my desk, and not too far into reading it, the thought surfaced: Why not Pianalto for the next president of the University of Akron? The soon-to-retire chief executive at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland already serves as an advisory member of the university board of trustees. She is a UA graduate and a native of the Akron area.
That may seem too easy. Or Pianalto may want nothing to do with running another large operation. Some people at and around the university apparently are smitten by the idea of Jim Tressel succeeding Luis Proenza. The former Ohio State head coach and now UA vice president for student success knows quite a bit about organization and decision-making, though largely in the realm of football.
Pianalto spoke to College Now Greater Cleveland, an organization devoted to helping students pay for their higher education. What comes across on the page is her passion in framing clearly the challenge for the region, and the state: We don’t have enough college graduates to compete and prosper in an increasingly knowledge-driven economy.
No question, a college education translates into higher earnings for an individual, the jobless rate for those with diplomas below 4 percent. Pianalto explains how a greater number of college graduates, or the region striving to become a “brain hub,” advances the whole. She points to creating “a virtuous circle of growth,” employers attracted by the skilled workers, skilled workers coming for the jobs here, spurring economic activity and a wide range of work.
This isn’t something achieved quickly. Know that Pittsburgh has a jump on us. Part of what drives Pianalto is the research. Of all the achievements at the Cleveland Fed on her watch, none tops the work of economists charting the factors fueling income growth in the 50 states the past 75 years. Here is something definitive about what it takes, and two factors stood out: education and innovation.
Pianalto has practical ideas about improvements, including a less forbidding financial aid system, a much heavier investment in early education and an improved certificate system for those seeking more than a high school degree yet less than a four-year college diploma. Most important, in her view, is a change in culture, more young people having college in mind from the start of their education.
Efforts have been launched in these directions. The task in remaking aspirations hardly can be overstated, especially with the obstacles poverty erects, and the state spending today on higher education what it did 15 years ago. Pianalto told her audience that she looks forward to doing more to improve educational attainment in Northeast Ohio. Perhaps in a big way at the University of Akron?
— MICHAEL DOUGLAS
Editorial page editor