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What progress is North Carolina making on its attainment goal?

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You can add North Carolina’s educational attainment goal to the list of things COVID-19 has impacted.

Almost two years after it was created, we recently got a look at the progress that is being made toward myFutureNC’s goals for the state’s education-to-workforce continuum.

In 2019, the myFutureNC Commission announced an attainment goal of having 2 million North Carolinians aged 25-44 with a high-quality credential or degree by 2030.

The most recent data available, according to the report released earlier this month, show that 1.4 million North Carolinians meet this criteria — about 44,000 behind where the state needs to be to reach the 2 million by 2030 goal.

When the group made the goal, the state was already projected to be 400,000 short by 2030. The pandemic posed additional challenges, but myFutureNC President & CEO Cecilia Holden and Board Chair Dale Jenkins wrote that the group needs to focus on hope.

“Periods of disruption are ideal opportunities for disruptors,” they wrote. “We now have a chance to do something transformative to shape the future of our state and citizens forever.”

The pandemic delayed or caused some of the data in the report to be incomplete, such as information about test scores from the last two years. Despite this, the data show that college applications fell by up to 30% between 2019 and 2020, while FAFSA completions fell 4% between 2020 and 2021.

At the same time, the report says, COVID-19 heightened the importance of increasing the number of residents with degrees or workforce credentials.

“We see educational attainment as the short-term recovery strategy and the longterm resiliency plan for our state’s economy,” the report reads. “It is the measure that will
ensure North Carolinians have the skills and education required to navigate a fluctuating economy moving forward.”

The report from myFutureNC lays out several areas on which the state should focus over the next decade. It also sets two foundational goals: expanding broadband access, affordability, and adoption; and analysis of data.

“The pandemic has highlighted internet access as a key component of educational infrastructure,” the report reads. “Broadband access equalizes opportunities for postsecondary readiness, access, completion, and alignment, regardless of ZIP code.”

Many parts of the state, particularly rural areas, lack reliable internet access. That’s why both the state and federal governments have increased investment in this area. The Senate budget proposes allocating $700 million in federal funds to expand rural broadband, while the House budget proposes $750 million.

As for data, the report found that “none of [North Carolina’s] sectors’ data systems were designed to work together.” Tracking and analyzing this attainment data will be necessary for the state to establish policy and track progress, the report says.

Here are the highlights of what else the report recommends, and where the state has been.

Want more on attainment? Check out this podcast from N.C. State’s Institute for Emerging Issues.

Academic readiness

In 2019, less than half of the state’s students in grades 3-8 earned a career-and-college-ready score on their end-of-grade math and reading tests. By 2030, the state hopes to get those numbers to 86% and 73%, respectively.

Students being prepared for college is one of the major obstacles in the education-to-workforce pipeline. The report highlights two opportunities to remedy this:

  • Career and College Ready Graduates provides remediation to high school students to prepare them for higher education. The program officially rolled out this year, but faces funding obstacles. (Scroll to the bottom of this article for more on how its students performed this year.)
  • “Accelerated learning opportunities” like Cooperative Innovative High Schools are a model of how increasing early college access can prepare students for higher education.

College and career access

“Preparation for postsecondary success is only valuable if students know how to and are able to enroll in postsecondary opportunities,” the report reads.

Only three in five high school seniors apply for federal aid, and roughly two-thirds enroll in a postsecondary program within two years of graduating.

To address this, the report recommends boosting college and career advising, as well as encouraging students to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

According to the report, the recommended student to counselor ratio is 250:1. In North Carolina, that ratio is 355:1.

“For employers looking for skilled workers,” the report reads, “increased investments in advising programs can replenish talent pipelines when students learn more about in-demand careers that pay family-supporting wages, and they have access to supports who can help and encourage them to chart a path to attaining the credentials and degrees required.”

North Carolina has several advising programs that connect students to resources about a postsecondary path, including GEAR UP with the UNC System and the Career Coach Program with the community college system.

myFutureNC also challenges schools to raise their FAFSA completion rates through First in FAFSA Innovation Grants. Grant winners had to create an innovative strategy that was family-centered, data driven, and equitable.

The 2021 grant winners are:

  • Mountain Heritage High School, Yancey County Schools
  • North Lenoir High Schools, Lenoir County Public Schools
  • Person High School, Person County Schools
  • South Granville High School, Granville County Schools
  • Statesville High School, Iredell-Statesville Schools

Postsecondary completion

For every 100 students in North Carolina, 13 enroll in a postsecondary program within one year of graduating high school but don’t return for a second year. Another 14 return but are unable to graduate in 6 years.

North Carolinians with a degree or workforce credential, the report finds, can earn up to three times more annually during their careers, and they are more likely to be employed in the long run.

Completion is also critical, because “otherwise, students accrue lots of debt and our government appropriates significant funding, but with no return on these investments.”

One opportunity is to engage, or re-engage, adult learners. Of the roughly 1.3 million North Carolina adults aged 25-44 that do not have a credential or degree, 380,000 have some college but no degree.

myFutureNC and the John M. Belk Endowment partnered with five community colleges to launch a pilot project this summer. The project, called NC Reconnect, had the goal of reaching adult learners to connect them “to educational pathways at their local community college that lead to improved career opportunities.”

The community colleges involved in the initiative are:

Labor market alignment

Jobs that require a degree or credential are expected to grow at twice the rate of jobs that do not have those requirements, the report says. However, many North Carolina employers say it is difficult to fill these positions.

State leaders from the N.C. Community College System to the Departments of Commerce and Public Instruction are collaborating with business leaders to get more real-time information on their needs and the non-degree credentials they value. The state aims to use this information to guide these workforce development efforts.

These workforce credentials “are high-quality, non-degree credentials recognized by employers that help workers in North Carolina obtain in-demand living wage jobs.” These credentials can lead students to a variety of careers, from pharmacy technician to law enforcement.

Next steps

myFutureNC plans to continue engaging stakeholders and providing the necessary data to inform decision-making, while also advocating for policy change.

The group also uses a “state-led, locally driven” approach by working with 15 local education collaboratives.

This two-year pilot program is in partnership with the ncIMPACT Initiative at the UNC School of Government. The collaboratives cover 38 counties across the state, with the goal of eventually covering all 100.

“Raising educational attainment statewide,” the report says, “requires a better understanding of the full education to workforce continuum to help us identify where our current education efforts need adjustments, where they are working well, or where we need to expand, focus and invest in new and innovative approaches.”

Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is a Reporting and Engagement Fellow for EducationNC.