The University of Akron, Kent State University and other local colleges took home the $1 million grand prize Wednesday in the national Talent Dividend competition.

The contest, sponsored by CEO for Cities, Living Cities and the Kresge Foundation, recognized metropolitan areas that increased the number of college degrees handed out over a four-year period.

The Akron region — Summit and Portage counties — posted the largest gain in the country based on a formula that took into account the type of degree and the population.

“Ultimately what this means is more students in our region are going to get a shot at a better life and everyone who lives in this region is going to get a shot at a better economy,” UA President Scott Scarborough said. “You can’t tell a better story than that.”

The award was announced at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The presidents of UA, Kent State, Hiram College, Northeast Ohio Medical University and Stark State College, which operates a satellite center in Barberton, attended the event together.

CEO for Cities launched the competition in 2011, saying a region’s economic success is tied to educational attainment. The group estimates that raising the four-year degree attainment by 1 percent in Northeast Ohio has a $2.8 billion economic impact.

Joe Cortright, a senior research adviser for the Talent Dividend, noted that the competition was not a beauty contest but was driven by results.

Fifty-seven metro areas took part in the contest, which covered degrees issued from 2009-10 to 2012-13.

Overall, Cortright said, there were 69,000 additional associate degrees and 55,000 more bachelor’s and other advanced degrees given out among all the participants thanks to innovative programs.

Those efforts include the Finish in Time program at UA and the Graduation Planning System at Kent State — which both focus on student success.

The Akron metro region saw associate degrees climb 23.3 percent to 1,414, and bachelor’s and advanced degrees rise 20 percent to 11,218 over the four-year period.

UA and Kent State both saw big gains. At UA’s main campus, the number rose from 3,813 to 4,387; they jumped from 5,138 to 6,372 at Kent State.

Kent State President Beverly Warren said the region has been collaborating on student initiatives for years.

“We feel somewhat guilty that we’re accepting $1 million for things that we do naturally,” she said. “But I think the secret for us is we’ve shared best practices … and we know that each of our individual successes as an institution is dependent on the success of the region.”

Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education (NOCHE), a consortium of universities and colleges in Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Youngstown, submitted the Talent Dividend applications from the Akron, Cleveland and Youngstown regions.

NOCHE Chairman Robert Reffner, vice president and general counsel at FirstEnergy Corp., accepted the award on the Akron area’s behalf.

“We have a lot more work to do here,” he said. “A lot more work. We’re not done by any means. But this is one heck of a start and one heck of a day.”

NOCHE, its partners and universities and colleges will split the prize money and use it for initiatives that boost post-secondary degrees.

Other award winners were: Portland, Ore.; the Center for Houston’s Future; the Say Yes to Education effort in the Buffalo-Syracuse, N.Y., region; Louisville, Ky.; Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.; Orlando-Kissimmee, Fla.; and Grand Rapids, Mich.

For more details about the Talent Dividend competition, go to: www.ceosforcities.org/city-dividends/talent/.

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com.