Tuesday, April 23, 2024

myFutureNC keeps pressure on to expand educational success

The goal of Raleigh-based nonprofit myFutureNC is to increase the number of North Carolinians with high-quality educational credentials and degrees by 2030. The state has a lot of folks with high school diplomas but no college. Or they have some college but no certificate or associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The target is 2 million people between the ages of 25 and 44 with these credentials and degrees in 2030, 66% of the age group. Good-paying, family-sustaining jobs are increasingly requiring credentials – industry-recognized certificates – and degrees. This is a tough hill to climb. If we just keep doing what we do, we might move up this decade from 1.3 million (49%) up to 1.6 million (54%).  Getting to 66% and 2 million means myFutureNC is trying to get another 400,000 folks credentialed or degreed.

It can be hard to persuade one person to go to college and stick with it, even for a shorter-term but marketable certificate program. Imagine 400,000. But myFutureNC has a strategy, and has been at it for five years. That is something, because a lot of initiatives start strong and fade away.

The workforce development system in North Carolina is the education pipeline that runs from early childhood to K-12 to community colleges and universities. It includes public schools, private schools, charters, public and private colleges and universities, 58 community colleges and thousands of home schools, which have more than 160,000 students. Ideally, the same number of kids who enter the pipeline at 4 years old emerge from it in their early 20s with skills that will land good jobs.

But the pipeline leaks. Students who don’t get a good start struggle, drop out of high school or don’t finish college. They leave without developing skills the economy wants. They wind up stuck in low-wage jobs or worse, just hanging out. There are a number of reasons why employers have trouble finding skilled workers, but part of it is this leaky pipeline, and it isn’t a new thing. It is getting more focus now thanks to groups like myFutureNC.

In a recent report, the organization updated numbers that it tracks.  You can look at a lot of the data here and here. Later this week, possibly Wednesday, myFutureNC will release updated profiles of each county, along with recommendations. These 100 profiles are crucial, because you can do something in your own community. In a state as big as North Carolina, it is hard to accomplish things just from Raleigh.

“While we are state-led, the work must happen at the grassroots level,” says Cecilia Holden, president and CEO. “We’ve recommended a local educational attainment goal for every county, and if every county meets their goal, the state will meet 2 million by 2030.” MyFutureNC has helped create 15 local collaboratives to help achieve local goals and share success stories that can be replicated. There are four regional impact managers.

Cecilia Holden

Here are some of the statistics myFutureNC tracks, and some of the 2030 goals:

  • 51% of four-year-olds from eligible lower-income families are enrolled in the public NC Pre-K program. The goal is 75% by 2030.  This is a statistic with longer-range significance.  We can get to 2 million by 2030 with a lot of effort, but in order to stay there, today’s 4-year-olds will need to keep moving through the education pipeline until 2040, and earn certificates and college degrees. Pre-K programs are seen as a good way to give them momentum.   “This is an important step to increase 3rd grade reading proficiency,” says Holden, “and also to provide quality education for the children of adults who want to go back to college or work.”  A lot of organizations are focused on increasing the availability of Pre-K seats for students across the state, but one problem is finding early childhood educators.  The median pay, according to myFutureNC, is $20,808.
  • We want to increase the odds that students in K-12 go on to college. If their reading and math skills are at grade level, Level 3, that’s an accomplishment. But if they are scoring at Level 4 or 5, they’re more likely to make it to college. This is known as “college-and-career-ready.” Overall, 29% of students in grades 3 through 8 are CCR in reading,  and 24% in math. The myFutureNC goal is to get students to 73% CCR in reading and 86% in math by 2030. The pandemic has set many students back and we don’t know what the long-term impact will be.
  • One way to increase the number of folks with post-secondary degrees and certificates is to keep students from dropping out when they reach 16. An average of 9,500 North Carolina students drop out of high school annually. The dropout total increased by nearly 2,000, or around 27%, between 2019-20 and 2020-21, according to state data.  Between 2020 and 2030, an estimated 100,000 students will drop out at current rates. A disproportionate number of them are Hispanic, 28.6% of the dropouts in the 2020-21 school year, compared to their 19.8% share of the student population. One recommendation has been to raise the dropout age from 16 to 18.  But this isn’t a quick fix. More work needs to get at the underlying problems, not simply reclassifying a youngster who vanishes from the classroom from “dropout” to “chronically truant.”
  • Some dropouts are known as “Opportunity Youths,” disconnected 16-24-year-olds who aren’t in school and aren’t working.  According to state data, the latest percentage in this age group is 12.1%. The goal is 9.1% in 2030. “With no direct connection to education or a job and no safety net to catch them, there is a good chance they will keep falling through the cracks,” says Holden. “It’s so important that our youth graduate from high school and earn a credential or degree that leads to a family-sustaining wage. Unfortunately, if a student drops out of high school, they can become opportunity youth and not be seen again until they end up in the social services line or at the penitentiary.”
  • One indicator of how things are going at a very local level is the FAFSA completion rate at high schools. The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It has to be submitted for federal Pell grants and state need-based assistance. Completion rates have been declining the last three years despite a lot of work by school counselors, myFutureNC and others during the pandemic. The rate for the most recent school year was 58%, through the end of August, short of the 65% goal for 2022. The 2030 goal is 80% of high school seniors completing the FAFSA. This is important because students who complete the FAFSA are more likely to go on to college and finish. Right now, North Carolina students are not getting $126 million in federal aid annually because they aren’t filling out the FAFSA.  MyFutureNC created a FAFSA tracker that  looks at how your local high school is doing for the current school year and you can look at last year.  The FAFSA efforts ran into headwinds from the pandemic, as did community college enrollment, which dropped 17.2% from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020. It ticked up about 4.9% last fall. Reaching the 2 million credential and degree goal by 2030 is tied directly to boosting community college enrollment. In addition to working on high school seniors, the community colleges have been focusing on bringing adults back to school, targeting the 1.3 million North Carolinians between 25 and 44 who lack a credential or degree. That includes a crucial segment in that age group, the 380,000 North Carolinians who had some college but dropped out. Getting them back would be a game-changer.

You will often hear discussions about how important the workforce is to economic development. The size and skill of the workforce is the first question economic developers receive from site consultants and companies looking to relocate. But growing a world-class workforce is more difficult than site development. It is a relatively straightforward pitch to get a county commission to buy land and invest in utilities. It is harder to explain to people the connection between third-grade reading and math scores and economic development.Or that a massive push on FAFSA in 2023 will help us land a major new employer in 2028.  But we know what the levers to a better-skilled and bigger workforce are. That’s not a mystery.

“Opportunity youth is a big deal. Kids not being academically ready is a big deal. Lower enrollments and fewer FAFSA completions is a big deal,” says Holden. “We remain laser focused on highlighting the importance of the state’s educational attainment goal and encouraging significant effort around the leaks in the pipeline.  Our drumbeat has remained consistent.”

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