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Emerging Issues Forum tracks progress toward North Carolina’s education attainment goal

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North Carolina has an ambitious goal for educational attainment — to have 2 million people ages 25 to 44 with a meaningful, high-quality credential beyond high school by 2030. 

Progress toward that goal — and ways to get there — were the topic this week at the 32nd annual Emerging Issues Forum, hosted by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University.

The biggest challenges, panelists at the event said, are the persistent attainment gaps among racial and ethnic groups, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. They discussed broad strategies for tackling these challenges, as well as specific initiatives that are already moving North Carolina forward.

Where we stand in meeting our attainment goals

Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography, explained that 2 million North Carolina adults between ages 25 and 44 would be 67% of that group’s projected population in 2030. 

More than half (53.5%) of today’s adults ages 25 to 44 have a postsecondary degree or credential. Another 14% have completed some college but not achieved a degree. Focusing on helping the latter complete their degree programs would put the state at 67.5%, or 2 million people by 2030. 

Tippett acknowledged that the pandemic has disrupted data collection, making it difficult to draw clear conclusions about the state’s recent progress toward that goal. 

But even with those limitations, Tippett said, enrollment declines were evident across the education spectrum since 2020. Not only are fewer students enrolled in K-12 and postsecondary institutions, but rates of promotion from one grade level to the next also have declined. 

The pandemic’s disruption to the overall education pipeline is likely to present long-term challenges for achieving the attainment goal, she said. 

Tippett also pointed out that existing educational attainment is not distributed equitably across the state’s racial and ethnic demographics. 

Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography, presents educational attainment data at the Emerging Issues Forum. Katie Dukes/EducationNC

MC Belk Pilon, president and board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment, said it will be impossible to reach the attainment goal without closing those racial and ethnic equity gaps.

“It’s not enough to continue enrolling students at our current rate,” Pilon said. “We need to be more intentional in ensuring that students enrolled in higher education represent the demographics of our student population and our adult learner populations across the state.”

Pilon and Scott Jenkins, strategy director for state policy at the Lumina Foundation, praised the work of North Carolina’s 10 HBCUs for leading the way on closing attainment gaps. 

“North Carolina’s home to 13% of the nation’s HBCUs,” Jenkins said, “and those schools award 43% of Black undergraduate degrees in the state.”

Strategies for boosting local success from the state level

Both Peter Hans, president of the UNC System, and Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, pointed to the importance of early intervention for closing attainment gaps and reaching the state’s attainment goal.

“We need to help students from the very beginning, from even elementary school, talking about college and talking about what they want to do with their lives,” Williams said. 

Thomas Stith, president of NC Community Colleges, expanded on the theme of early educational interventions. 

“At an early age, we have to ensure that we’re developing the skills that are important for life — inward critical thinking, independent problem solving, communication skills, working in teams — these are going to be just the basic skills that employers are going to see,” Stith said.

Catherine Truitt, state superintendent of public instruction, said, “I am just absolutely certain that we need to move more from a college-for-all mindset to a careers-for-all mindset.” 

Williams, Truitt, and Hans all pointed to the importance of literacy and reading comprehension. 

Hans said literacy instruction is particularly important in teacher training. “Because the truth is that the way we prepare teachers to help young people read is a bit uneven, and we wouldn’t tolerate this in medicine or engineering,” he said.

“Now, I do want to be clear that there’s only so much that the university system can contribute here. If students come to school hungry or sleep deprived, maybe lacking the social connectedness that facilitates learning, even the best trained teacher will face a Herculean task ahead of them.”

What’s happening now

Gov. Roy Cooper and Machelle Baker Sanders, state commerce secretary, shared some of what the state has accomplished during the pandemic. 

“We’re bringing thousands of new jobs to every part of our state, and we know that educating and training a strong workforce gets them here,” Cooper said.

Sanders also highlighted the importance of educational attainment in workforce development. “It does us no good to create jobs if we can’t fill them,” she said.

They outlined several statewide initiatives designed to help develop North Carolina’s workforce, including the First in Talent strategic plan for economic development and the NC Workforce Credentials initiative. 

According to Cooper, Finish Line Grants, which provide assistance to community college students facing financial emergencies, have helped more than 4,500 students on their path to educational attainment. 

Cooper also praised the success of the bipartisan Longleaf Commitment Grant Program, which he said has provided financial support to more than 11,000 high school graduates attending one of the state’s 58 community colleges. 

Jennifer McLean, associate director of student support services/director of basic needs for NC Community Colleges, described a new partnership among seven community colleges and the Hope Center to create a “basic needs ecosystem.”

“They’re looking at the services offered at the college and trying to streamline and reduce the barriers for basic needs, so a student doesn’t have to tell their story over and over again,” McLean said. “When these colleges complete this work in the summer, we’re going to then share that through our system.”

Truitt touted the success of summer learning programs in 2021. She praised the number of teachers who stepped up to staff these programs after a grueling school year. 

“At the end of the day, we learned that 86% of the students who were served in summer learning this past summer, were in fact students at risk,” Truitt said. “And so not only did teachers step up and say, ‘You know what? I want to stay with my kids. I want to see them through to the end.’ But the students who really needed to be served by summer extension learning were served.” 

The road ahead

Wrapping up the first day of the forum, Rupen Fofaria, equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC, noted the importance of paying attention to effective processes in K-12 education, not just programs. 

“When we talk about scaling, we have to be really intentional about not taking one solution and then trying to scale that uniformly across one hundred counties,” he said. “Look at the solutions that seem to be having success. They are very locally driven. And so when we look at scaling, we ought to be looking at the process —  what was it that allowed this particular program to take root in a community?”

Rupen Fofaria and Emily Thomas of EducationNC respond to questions from Leslie Boney, Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues, at the Emerging Issues Forum. Katie Dukes/EducationNC

At the postsecondary level, Emily Thomas, policy analyst for EducationNC, pointed to another type of work colleges need to do to close attainment gaps. “If the students aren’t coming to your colleges, you’re going to have to go to them,” she said.

The event continued through Wednesday and Thursday mornings, focused on how local stakeholders and employers can facilitate educational attainment.

Katie Dukes

Katie Dukes is a policy analyst at EdNC.