Victoria Namishia was convinced that it was too late, and that she was too old.
It was 2011, and she still did not have the undergraduate degree she had begun pursuing after graduating from high school in 1984. She had built a career at Bank of America in Charlotte. She had even tried in the mid-1990s to earn an education degree at UNC Charlotte. But the demands of full-time work and motherhood prompted her to drop out.
She kept worrying, however, that not having a four-year degree would hurt her job prospects if she ever left the bank. She also didn’t like having fallen short of her dream of becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Namishia was far from alone in her struggle. Though thousands of undergraduates across North Carolina will receive their degrees in the coming weeks, a 2012 report from the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation shows that just 43 percent of adults in the Charlotte region have earned at least an associate degree. By 2018, according to the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, 63 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require at least an associate degree.
In Greensboro and Winston-Salem, only about 35 percent of adults hold an associate degree or higher. The Triangle ranks the highest of our state’s major metros at 53 percent. Overall, more than 1.2 million adults in North Carolina have earned college credits but not completed their degrees. These shortfalls not only impact the careers and earning prospects of individual North Carolinians but also have serious ramifications for our state’s economic health.
For each percentage point increase in degree attainment, metropolitan regions realize an $856 increase in per capita income, reports CEOs for Cities, a national nonprofit. And as cities become wealthier and better educated, they find it easier to recruit new businesses and build a vibrant climate for entrepreneurs.
So getting adults back into the college classroom and retaining them until they finish their degrees is a high priority for our state – and, increasingly, innovative initiatives to make that happen are emerging.
Namishia benefited greatly from one of them – UNC Charlotte’s 49er Finish program, which helps re-enroll students who have left UNCC without earning degrees. The program, which has won a national award for academic advising, has helped nearly 600 adults complete their degrees since 2006. It contacted Namishia in 2010, and, at first, she resisted. But program officials explained that her credits from the 1990s still counted and that she only needed eight classes to earn a bachelor’s degree.
After nearly 30 years of delays and hesitations, Namishia returned to UNC Charlotte in 2012 and earned a degree in English with honors that year. The timing couldn’t have been better. Laid off by Bank of America just a month before graduation, she said the new degree bolstered her credentials and her confidence. She landed a consulting job in Charlotte and is toying with earning a master’s.
Closing the gap
On the other side of the state, East Carolina University has taken extraordinary measures to make higher education more accessible for adults. It was one of the first institutions in the nation to offer degrees entirely on the Internet. Today it provides more than 75 degrees and certificate programs online, in industries ranging from education and business to health care and technology.
The most ambitious effort in the state is unfolding right now in Guilford County, which includes Greensboro and High Point, where nearly 70,000 residents have attended college but never earned a degree. Backed by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, UNC Greensboro and the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro are spearheading Degrees Matter!, a countywide collaboration involving several local colleges and economic development and social service agencies. The goal: ensuring that at least 63 percent of Guilford County residents – in other words, 40,000 more people – have earned a post-secondary degree by 2025.
Inspired by successful adult-degree efforts in Philadelphia, Chicago and Connecticut, Degrees Matter! will enroll its first students this fall. “The difference between where North Carolina is and where it needs to be is troubling, and the need for talent is only getting bigger,” says Steve Moore, UNCG’s director of transfer and adult student academic success. He cites classified ad data showing that well over 1,000 jobs in engineering, health care and information technology remain open in North Carolina because qualified candidates can’t be found.
The sooner these innovative adult education programs across the state are replicated, the sooner we can close that gap – and take a big step toward unlocking the full potential of our workforce.
Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.