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Why attainment matters: From student to state leader

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Meet Kody Kinsley.

In late 2021 with the new year approaching, Hope Williams, president of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU), received a phone call from Kinsley.

She was elated to learn that he was going to become North Carolina’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), effective January 1, 2022.

Williams says, “his is such a great story to talk about our first-generation college students, parents who want to help but may not be quite sure how to help, how to navigate the financial challenges of going to your dream college, and how our colleges position our students to lead in graduate school and beyond.”

Kinsley and DHHS have responsibility for all aspects of the state’s health and human services, including a staff of 18,000 and an annual budget of $38 billion. 

He is a distinguished alumnus of Brevard College, which has noted that his dedication to public service to the state of North Carolina and our country reflect Brevard College’s motto, “Learn in Order to Serve.”

Recently, The Assembly profiled Kinsley, noting, “The kid who grew up without health insurance became the man who helped make Medicaid expansion a reality. And that same man is now tasked with rolling out health-care coverage to families just like his.”

How did Kinsley’s postsecondary education, which led to his leadership and career in public service, become a reality for this first-generation college-going student?

Courtesy of Kody Kinsley
Lucy Inman swears in Kody Kinsley as secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Courtesy of Kody Kinsley

The path to attainment

A college-going expectation matters

As early as elementary school, Kinsley remembers an expectation by his parents that he would go to college.

He describes being at a school supper with them — maybe as early as first grade — and the idea of college coming up. In that moment, he realized, not going was not an option.

“It was no more negotiable than going to school every day,” he said.

Kinsley’s parents believed that “if you worked hard in school and go to college, then you will be better off.”

The promise of education for Kinsley’s working-class family was tied to the American dream.

“That expectation was always there,” he said, emphasizing the always.

Where did the expectation come from? Kinsley thinks that his parent’s working in service to others who had been to college and went on to have wealth allowed them to see the opportunity they went on to dream of for their son.

Opportunities to participate in Duke’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) and taking the SAT in earlier grades helped Kinsley realize going to college was more than just a dream.

It was possible.

Finding the right fit for college matters

Kinsley grew up in Wilmington, but his family took vacations in Cedar Mountain in Transylvania County to visit family friends.

Those visits to Western North Carolina more than college counseling influenced his decision to attend Brevard College.

And then he remembers visiting the college for the first time.

The admission counselor, Betty Kay Brookshire, impressed him. “She knew every single person by sight – student, faculty member, first and last name. I have always valued community so that really stood out to me,” he has said.

“This is the kind of place,” Kinsley says he thought at the time, “where you can build relationships, and that will be important.”

Navigating how to pay for college

By his senior year in college, Kinsley was focused on how exactly to pay for college.

“My parents were incredibly supportive,” he said, but practically they all had a lot of questions about affordability.

The reality is cost was a barrier for him and remains a barrier for too many other students.

Access to scholarships and grants matter when it comes to attainment, and finding a college that will help the student put the package of aid together is an important part of the journey.

The attainment journey

Kinsley says that often the most fulfilling pathways for students in college and career aren’t pathways that they even know exist.

Because of that, he is a big proponent of exposure to opportunities starting very early on — like elementary school.

The power of attainment

College matters. Careers matter. Opportunities to lead matter.

But Kinsley notes that the attainment journey equips students with even more important opportunities.

“Students learn how to learn. They learn how to solve problems. They learn how to relate to other with different backgrounds. They learn how to work, and how to work hard,” he said.

When he visits Brevard College, you can find Kinsley by the creek, his favorite spot on campus.

You can find and follow Kinsley on Twitter, now X, @kodykinsley.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.