Degrees Matter for North Carolina’s future

Posted on May 24, 2013

Reposted from the Degrees Matter! Blog

Degrees matter for North Carolina’s future
Jim Applegate and Steve Moore, Guest Column
May 24, 2013, Triad Business Journal

It’s May and that means students from across North Carolina are graduating from college. That’s good news. But unfortunately, not nearly enough people are completing degrees to keep pace with our future work force needs. That reality puts our regional and local economies at risk and it requires employers, higher education institutions, policymakers, civic leaders and others to work together on addressing our talent gap.

Currently, only 37 percent of North Carolinians hold at least an associate degree. And while students who are turning their tassels this month will add to those numbers, the state is still far behind where it needs to be. A study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that 59 percent of jobs in North Carolina will require a college credential by 2018.

The difference between where North Carolina is and where it needs to be is troubling, and the need for talent is only getting bigger. In January, a scan of classified ads from around the state revealed more than 1,500 job openings in the fields of engineering, health care and information technology alone. Today, the number of open jobs in those fields has increased to more than 1,850. And employers are bemoaning the fact that they can’t find enough skilled workers to meet their needs.

One group that holds tremendous promise in helping us close the talent gap is adult learners who started college but never finished. There are currently more than 1.2 million adults (roughly 23 percent of the adult population) in North Carolina who have earned credits but don’t have enough to graduate.

Many are just a few credit hours short of completion, and we are working to find them and help them complete what they started. We want to connect returning adult students to clear educational and career pathways that align with strategic industry clusters. And if we can do that for just 20 percent of this population, we can add 240,000 degree holders across the state.

Those additional degrees could have a significant impact on our regional and local economies. According to the CEOs for Cities Talent Dividend Report, 58 percent of a city’s economic success can be linked to one key indicator, the rate of degree attainment in that city. And the same report also says that for each percentage point increase in degree attainment (associate degree or higher), a city can expect an annual $856 per capita increase.

Those statistics are powerful, and our hope is that they will serve as a catalyst for broader collaboration around addressing our attainment gap. Employers can help by engaging and guiding their adult workers who are interested in re-enrolling. Policymakers can help by promoting policies that encourage (and financially support) lifelong learning and increased degree attainment. Community funders can help by making additional resources available for these efforts. And institutions can play a key role by uncovering new ways to serve adult learners as they return to college.

Together, we can better connect lifelong learning to a thriving economy by increasing the percentage of residents with high-quality degrees and advanced competencies. The time to act is now, and we look forward to joining forces with other interested parties as we push to build a bridge that takes us from the talent gap of today to a 21st century work force that has the skills the future will demand.


Jim Applegate is vice president of strategic impact for the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation.
Steve Moore is the director of transfer and adult student academic success at UNC-Greensboro.

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