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myFutureNC blog series: North Carolina’s leaky education pipeline

Located within the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, Carolina Demography uses population-level data and other available research to provide context and perspective to people working to shape North Carolina’s future. Under the leadership of Dr. Rebecca Tippett, Carolina Demography produced a series of Data Briefs for the myFutureNC Commission highlighting key data points in the areas of accesspersistencesuccess, and postsecondary pathways and barriers to opportunity.

In collaboration with the John M. Belk EndowmentCarolina Demography released, “North Carolina’s Leaky Educational Pipeline,” report that maps North Carolina’s public postsecondary education pipeline and identifies our biggest opportunities for improvement. We focus on the public education pipeline—meaning outcomes from K-12 (NC Department of Public Instruction), NC Community Colleges, and the University of North Carolina system. These institutions serve the majority of our state’s students and were able to provide comprehensive data necessary to analyze student outcomes.

Courtesy of Carolina Demography

For this study, we followed North Carolina ninth-graders through our state’s public education institutions for 10 years. Just 16% of the most recent ninth-grade cohort graduated from high school on-time and made an on-time transition to an NC community college or UNC system school and received a degree or credential from that institution.

Our work identified four main “leaks,” or points during which students fell out of the pipeline before achieving postsecondary completion:

  1. On-time high school graduation;
  2. Immediate enrollment in a postsecondary institution;
  3. Retention, or staying enrolled in that postsecondary institution; and
  4. On-time graduation from postsecondary.

General Findings

  • More students are completing high school on time. The on-time high school graduation rate rose from 68% in 2006 to 87% in 2017.
  • The transition to college is the largest loss point in the education pipeline, and the size of this loss is growing.
  • In 2017, only 43% of the state’s public high school graduates immediately enrolled in a UNC system school or a North Carolina Community College in the fall following their high school graduation.
  • The first year of college is the most vulnerable point of a student’s career. One in four high school graduates who enrolled in a North Carolina Community College or a UNC system school in fall 2016 left within one year. First-year attrition rates were 12% at UNC system schools and 34% at North Carolina Community Colleges.

Race and Ethnicity

Courtesy of Carolina Demography


  • 90% of female students graduate from high school on-time, while the on-time high school graduation rate for male students is 83%. This gap shrank by 2 percentage points from 2006 to 2017.
  • 89% of female high school graduates have intentions to enroll in postsecondary education; for males, 76% of high school graduates have intention to enroll in postsecondary education. This gap grew by 3 percentage points from 2006 to 2017.
  • This gap continues with the immediate enrollment rate at a UNC system school or a North Carolina Community College: 48% of female students immediately enroll compared to 38% of male students.
  • We again see this gender gap with on-time completion rate for UNC system schools: for female students, the percentage of on-time completion rates within UNC system school is 72%; for males, 64%.

Read the full report to learn more about North Carolina’s Leaky Educational Pipeline.

Editor’s note: This perspective was first published by the Hunt Institute. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

The John M. Belk Endowment supports the work of EducationNC.

Rebecca Tippett, Ph.D.

Rebecca Tippett is the director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill where she translates demographic and economic data into specific, usable information and knowledge to inform decision-making, evaluation, and policy.