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The education-to-career continuum

It wasn’t that long ago that a person graduating from a North Carolina high school could walk out in their cap and gown, smiling at their waiting family members, and know a good living-wage job was waiting for them.

There was no urgency to a college degree. There was no rush to get a postsecondary certificate or credential.

In many cases, there was even no need to leave one’s own hometown to find a middle-class career.

Those days are gone now and the thought of finding a job that could support a family with only a high school diploma seems quaint.

Earlier this month, Durham-based nonprofit MDC, in partnership with Charlotte’s John M. Belk Endowment, released a report detailing a troubling trend across North Carolina: more and more children born into low-income families are staying there.

The report, titled “North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity,” examined state-wide data on demographics, economics, and job growth. Some of the data we’ve heard before. The state is increasingly becoming more diverse with Hispanics and African Americans accounting for larger percentages of the population, particularly those 45 and under.

(Graph courtesy of MDC)
(Graph courtesy of MDC)

But some of the data presented is surprising and a bit disheartening. Throughout North Carolina, regardless of whether it is a metro area or a rural community, economic mobility is becoming increasingly out of reach for many. Children born today are more likely to live the life their parents lived, to achieve the same level of education, and to have a comparable level of economic security. And they in turn will be less likely to provide a better life for their own children.

In Wilson, for example, the report notes that of children born into the lowest income quintile – households earning $19,916 or less – only 25 percent have a chance of moving into either the middle ($36,752 to $58,159) or upper middle ($58,160 to $93,418) income quintiles. And only 3 percent are likely to move into the highest income quintile, a household income of $93,419 or more.

(Graph courtesy of MDC)
(Graph courtesy of MDC)

The report cites school poverty and segregation as one of interconnected factors that stymie economic mobility. The authors note that “… in many places, educational quality varies widely between schools and between districts, and residential segregation and school funding formulas often concentrate students from low-wealth families in lower quality schools.” And too often, it is families of color that end up populating those neighborhoods and whose children end up attending those high-poverty schools.

(Graph courtesy of MDC)
(Graph courtesy of MDC)

Education is key to giving a child the chance to move up into a higher income quintile and create a better life than his or her parents had. But as the report notes, “educational attainment is deeply tied to family income,” meaning children born into a low-income family or to parents without postsecondary education are less likely to attain education beyond what their parents attained.

It’s a brutal cycle, and one that is economically problematic for a state that is becoming increasingly diverse, and which will become more and more reliant on a workforce made up of higher percentages of Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans.

Just under 13 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree in North Carolina and just under 20 percent of African Americans do. That’s compared to 32 percent of whites.

Nearly 69 percent of Hispanics have only a high school diploma or less. That’s compared to 47 percent of African Americans and just under 36 percent of whites.

(Graph courtesy of MDC)
(Graph courtesy of MDC)

The MDC and Belk report digs deeper into state- and regional-level workforce projections, and what education a worker would need to fill those positions.

The message is clear:

The jobs of tomorrow, the jobs that will be available to the K-12 students of today, will require a higher level of educational attainment but will provide a better chance at economic advancement and security.

Education now plays out along a life-long continuum of learning and training, one that starts during pregnancy and continues throughout an adult’s working life. It requires supports outside of the classroom that will help a student be academically successful, and it must continue in conversation with businesses and industry to identify the skills needed to fill the jobs of tomorrow. As the report notes, “A strong education-to-career continuum connects more people to the necessary postsecondary credentials and family-supporting employment needed for individuals, their communities and the state to thrive.”

As part of the report’s launch, EdNC featured profiles of six North Carolina communities working to improve opportunities for their youth and young adults.

Places where education and industry are working together, along with community leaders and elected officials, to increase economic mobility and help their communities thrive.

Cultivating aspirations: Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren Counties

Partners at the speed of trust: Guilford County

Recovery through collaboration: Wilkes County

Landscape defines opportunity: Western North Carolina

Growth that benefits all: Pitt County

Todd Brantley

Todd Brantley is the senior director of public affairs at The Rural Center. He formerly served as director of policy and research at EducationNC.

He grew up in Randolph County where he attended Farmer Elementary School, Randleman Middle School, and Randleman High School. Todd attended Randolph Community College before graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995. He received a master’s in theological studies from Duke Divinity School in 2002 and a master’s from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Prior to his work at The Rural Center and EducationNC, Todd also worked as the associate communications director at MDC providing strategic communications support for several programs, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Partners for Postsecondary Success and the Developmental Education Initiative. Todd was part of the writing and research team that produced the 2010 and 2011 State of the South reports. While a graduate student, he interned at The Story with Dick Gordon and was the editor of The Fountain, the alumni magazine for the Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill.

He was part of the research and writing team that received the Governmental Research Association’s 2014 Most Distinguished Research Award for a report on the use of telepsychiatry in rural areas. He was a co-author of How the Triangle Gives Back, a 2008 report that examined local philanthropic and charitable giving in the Research Triangle region. His writing and research has appeared in the Daily Yonder; Insight, a publication of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research; and NC DataNet, a publication of The Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A native of North Carolina, Todd currently splits his time between Raleigh and Pikeville, where he helps maintain his wife’s family’s farm. He says, “As a product of this state’s systems of public education, from secondary, to the community college system, to our public postsecondary system, I have seen firsthand how important these institutions are for the social and economic wellbeing of this state and its citizens. Regardless of whether you are a new resident or a native, a parent or not, we all benefit from the fruits of our current system of public learning, and the hard work and foresight of those who came before us who understood that, regardless of political affiliation, North Carolina needed to be a national leader in access to quality education for everyone.”