Growing up near Mount Airy as the son of a migrant worker, Ricky Ruvio never doubted that he would be the first member of his family to attend college. His parents, church friends and teachers at Surry Central High expected no less.
But many of his classmates, whose family members assumed there was still enough work in the region’s shrinking manufacturing sector, didn’t get the same encouragement to further their education. With a Georgetown University study showing that nearly two-thirds of jobs in the U.S. will require at least an associate degree by 2018, Ruvio worries about their future.
So after earning his bachelor’s degree in political science last year at UNC-Chapel Hill, Ruvio decided to do something about it. He joined College Advising Corps, a nonprofit based in Chapel Hill that provides college admissions and financial aid advising to students from rural and disadvantaged urban high schools throughout the United States.
Ruvio is one of about three-dozen advisers serving 55 high schools across North Carolina. Those ranks will swell this fall thanks to a three-year, $10 million grant from the Charlotte-based John M. Belk Endowment that will eventually add 60 advisers each year for three years. For the 2014-15 year, 41 recent graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill will serve as advisers, along with 10 from Davidson College, eight from Duke and as many as 20 from N.C. State University.
“We’re going into schools and establishing a college-going culture,” says Ruvio, who serves hundreds of juniors and seniors at Hibriten and West Caldwell high schools in Lenoir. After graduation ceremonies this month, he says, about 25 percent of seniors in his schools will head to four-year colleges. The rest will go to community college or straight into the workforce or military. Ruvio’s job is to guide as many as possible toward the level of higher education that fits their goals and readiness.
With corps members doing similar work in outlying areas as well as in Charlotte, the Triangle and the Triad, College Advising Corps is perhaps the best-funded organization of its kind in North Carolina. But it’s far from the only one focused on opening doors to higher education.
With $1.3 million in seed funding from the Gates Foundation, the Raleigh Promise initiative began in 2010 with the goal of doubling by 2025 the number of low-income youths in Raleigh who receive a post-secondary degree and find living-wage employment. It is supported by the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative, which includes Meredith College, N.C. State, St. Augustine’s College, Shaw University, Wake Technical Community College, William Peace University and numerous community partners.
The initiative identifies promising students and helps prepare them for college, offers college planning advice for students and their families, and runs a fellows program that keeps students on track to graduate once they enter college. The Gates Foundation funding ended last year, but the initiative continues to move forward with modest funding from other sources and grassroots involvement.
“We’re testing the whole notion of collective impact, the belief that we can accomplish more together than we can individually,” says Jose Picart, vice provost for academic programs and services at N.C. State and executive director of the Colleges and Community Collaborative.
The Gates Foundation has also partnered with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on a project that leverages data in groundbreaking ways to identify and support at-risk students, as well as investing in programs to prepare minority students for higher education.
Early signs point to lasting impact from all of these efforts. A Stanford University study, for example, found that schools served by College Advising Corps advisers have an 8 to 10 percentage point increase in students attending college. And seniors who meet with an adviser are nearly 70 percent more likely to be accepted by a college or university.
Meanwhile, a new U.S. Department of Labor report shows that graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn almost twice as much per hour as those without four-year degrees. Yet data from the U.S. Department of Education reveals that North Carolina has only one college counselor for every 357 students in North Carolina – 100 more students than recommended.
The N.C. Education Cabinet has set up a strategic planning committee focused on educational attainment and degree completion. Like programs such as College Advising Corps and the Raleigh Promise, the new committee reflects the importance of increased investment in our students. And in this season of graduations and dreams for the future, it reminds us of the tremendous potential here at home still waiting to be unleashed.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.