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Perspective | How can N.C. make postsecondary attainment the new standard?

Editor’s Note: The following piece is in response to the 2021 Dallas Herring lecture, sponsored by N.C. State University and the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research. Click here for more on the lecture from Gregory Haile, president of Broward College in Florida.

I applaud President Gregory Haile’s charge to all of us in the Dallas Herring Lecture when he said, “We need to make it impossible for every resident, every child, and every adult, not to realize the opportunity for a postsecondary education.” Essentially, Haile is calling upon all of us to make earning a college credential, not a high school diploma, the new basic standard for all students to be ready to enter the workforce. That is bold.  And, in my view, he is correct.  A postsecondary credential of value should be the high school diploma for our generation.

It was about 100 years ago in our nation’s history that a high school diploma began to emerge as the standard of what everyone needed to enter the workforce and secure a job that would pay a living wage. In our modern era, a high school diploma just isn’t enough. We all know that the most likely path out of a life of poverty is through earning a postsecondary credential that has value in our current labor market. 

We also know that the folks in our community who need that credential the most are the very ones who are least likely to feel empowered to attend any kind of postsecondary institution. They are living in poverty. Often, they are students of color or students who speak English as their second language. In my part of the world in northwest North Carolina, they are mostly the generationally poor white students of rural Appalachia. What all these groups have in common is that most of their parents did not attend college and the students simply do not see themselves going to college either.

Most of our colleges, if not all of them, are simply not doing a good enough job creating consistently clear connections between educational pathways and career opportunities for students. We need to make our value proposition much clearer to students. If you go through this 15-week information technology program, for example, you will earn the credential you need to enter this specific job at this specific company that pays this beginning annual salary. Our students need a stronger assurance that if they complete one of our programs, there will be tangible economic opportunities for them in the local labor market when they graduate. Can we give that assurance? For all of our programs? I will go out on a limb and say most of us cannot give that kind of assurance for all of our programs. What are we going to do about it?

At Wilkes Community College, we are trying to address the issue of economic mobility head on with several different initiatives. While we have not used the nomenclature that Haile uses around addressing physical, social, and financial proximity, we are implementing various initiatives that are allowing us to make progress on all three areas. 

First, we are offering Career & College Promise classes in each of our service area high schools. We are taking our classes to the students instead of leaving the burden on them to try to get to one of our campus locations. We have also placed career coaches in all of the traditional high schools in our service area. These coaches are meeting with high school students and developing individualized career and educational plans to ensure all students understand the connection between the classes they are taking in high school and are planning to take in college and the career pathway they intend to pursue. We have developed systems to link PowerSchool with Colleague so that we can track these students from high school into and through college. Our goal is for every single high school student to have an individualized plan in place by their junior year in high school. We believe helping all high school kids understand they are “college material” and encouraging them to get a jumpstart on their college pathway while they are still in high school is a great start in addressing issues related to physical, social, and financial proximity.

Another strategy we have implemented is the Guided Pathways model. Through implementation of this model, we have developed better systems to: 1) clarify paths to students’ end goals, 2) help students choose and enter a pathway 3) help students stay on the pathway and 4) ensure students are learning. We have done a lot of work behind the scenes to help ensure the students’ experiences in each of these four areas are more seamless. The work we are doing in this area is helping more students see clear pathways between the careers they want and the educational programs they need to complete to enter those careers, which is addressing the issue of social proximity. Students who can actually see themselves in a certain career begin to have more faith that they can go to college and earn the necessary credential.

Finally, we have been hard at work on addressing the issue of financial proximity. We are raising $8.5 million to create our own version of a “tuition-free guarantee” program for all high school graduates in our service area who meet our very generous eligibility criteria. We believe establishing this “last-dollar” scholarship for our entire service area is a first big step in helping all of the students in Wilkes, Ashe, and Alleghany counties understand that they can afford to go to college. As we are getting this program established, we are already looking at ways to supplement these funds to provide even more financial support to our students who need it the most. We are well on our way to solving this issue of financial proximity, truly making a college education affordable for all of our citizens.

If we are serious about breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and improving the economic and social mobility of those currently on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, what are we willing to do to make that happen? How can we meet all of our students where they are, help them understand the imperative of having a postsecondary degree or credential, help them find the right path for them, and then remove every barrier in their way of completing that postsecondary credential? How can we make a postsecondary degree or credential the new high school diploma for our generation? 

I, for one, accept Haile’s challenge to all of us to do the work to address the physical, social, and financial proximity barriers that are keeping so many of our citizens from accessing and ultimately earning a postsecondary credential of value. Let’s get to work.

Jeff Cox

Jeff Cox is the president of Wilkes Community College.