Local media over the course of the last several months have asked us variations on one question repeatedly: if our city wants to do better – be more productive, retain more young people, reduce poverty—how can it do that?

That’s a very complicated question of course, and each metro area and urban core has its own problems based on current policies and laws, history, and geography, among other factors. However, there is one indicator that above all else predicts success of city residents: college attainment rates. Even for those without a 4-year degree, this predicts success; essentially, if your neighbors are better educated, you are more likely to have a better income. With that, all of the correlates of a higher income such as health, educational opportunities for children, and even happiness—are higher.

It’s striking how strong and consistent the correlation between education and higher personal incomes is.  Economists attribute this to a number of factors.  Better educated workers command a high skill premium, because they’re more adaptable and productive, and are critical to growing knowledge based firms.  Education has important spillover benefits:  on average, workers of all education levels are more productive (and higher paid) if they live in cities that are better educated.  A well-educated population makes a city more resilient in the face of economic and technological change, and better able to quickly adapt to new circumstances and opportunities.

Cities around the nation pursue a range of different economic strategies–pursuing new industries, promoting innovation, encouraging entrepreneurship, expanding infrastructure, and building civic amenities.  While there are merits to all of these approaches, every one of them takes a back seat to improving educational attainment as a way to raise incomes.  Put another way, all of these strategies will work better in a place with strong educational attainment, and communities with weak educational attainment will find only meager returns.

Improving educational attainment isn’t the only economic strategy, but it’s a fundamental one, and if your city fails to move forward in this important area, it will find it more difficult to successfully implement all of its other tactics.

At CityObservatory, we track attainment rates closely, as we believe talent is the biggest driver of positive (or negative) change in a city. The figure above shows the most updated figures on educational attainment and per capita income, from the 2013 American Community Survey data. To learn more about how talent drives city success, go here, and be sure to check back often, as we will continue to discuss how talent and success are tied to complex urban problems (and solutions to those problems).