The University of North Carolina released its strategic plan a couple weeks ago. Documents like this usually aren’t very exciting, but this one has far-reaching implications for our state. Included in the mix: a commitment to enroll more low-income and rural students and help them get all the way to graduation. And a pledge to keep the system affordable and accessible for qualified in-state high school students.
Why does this matter? Because in an age of growing income inequality when having a well-prepared workforce is critical, this commitment is vitally important for North Carolina’s future.
As we have written in the past, North Carolina has one of the lowest economic mobility rates in the country, meaning it is extremely difficult to move from a lower income bracket into a higher one. Education is a proven way to do it, however – particularly when applicable 21st century skills are obtained through a higher education degree.
Prioritizing affordable access to North Carolina’s universities and colleges for lower-income families is a critically important step in this effort.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
To track how well colleges and universities are fostering upward economic mobility, The Equality of Opportunity Project recently released a Mobility Report Card. Using data from 30 million college students, the report looks at the distribution of family income when a student enrolls (for example, how many students are in the top income bracket versus the bottom bracket) and if students are able to ascend income brackets once they graduate.
Not surprisingly, household income is highly correlated to the selectivity of a college. Roughly 25 percent of students in the top 1 percent of household income nationally attend an elite college (the 82 most selective as ranked by Barron’s). By contrast, less than 0.5 percent of children in the lowest economic quintile attend an elite college, and more than half don’t attend college at all.
Public systems, like the UNC system, propel far more low-income students into the middle and upper-income brackets than the elite colleges.
However, the small number of poor students who do attend selective and elite colleges end up earning almost as much as their richer peers by the time they are 35. And public systems, like the UNC system, propel far more low-income students into the middle and upper-income brackets than the elite colleges.
Within North Carolina, the universities that have the strongest track record in promoting upward economic mobility are Elizabeth City State, Winston-Salem State, North Carolina Central, Fayetteville State and North Carolina A&T, in that order.
At Elizabeth City State, for instance, the median family income is $33,000, and 7.7 percent of students come from the top 20 percent income bracket while 18 percent come from the bottom fifth. By the time these graduates are 35 years old, 36 percent will move up two or more income quintiles – and 3.9 percent will move from the bottom to the top income quintile.
At the private Wake Forest University, by comparison, 22 percent of the students come from the top 1 percent (families making $630,000 or more) while only 2.3 percent come from the bottom fifth. In part because so many of the students are coming from wealthy backgrounds, only 2.7 percent move up two or more economic quintiles by the time they are 35.
Among the 101 four-year colleges in North Carolina, the vast majority of schools with the highest mobility rates are public (and those that aren’t are typically historically black colleges and universities like St. Augustine’s, Bennett and Shaw). North Carolina’s 58 community colleges also do well on mobility and accessibility – with 17.6 percent of students coming from the lowest 20 percent income bracket.
Here’s why access to these schools is important. If you have less than a high school degree, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, there is a 31 percent chance of living in poverty versus a less than 5 percent chance if you have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Yearly tuition at public colleges in North Carolina has gone up 115 percent from 2000 to 2014. For the same period, income went down 11 percent.
Despite the growing economic importance of the college degree, the proportion of U.S. graduates is actually in decline. Part of this can be attributed to the rising costs. In 1980, college tuition was 25 percent of median family income. By some estimates, it is now over 50 percent.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, yearly tuition at public colleges in North Carolina has gone up 115 percent from 2000 to 2014. For the same period, income went down 11 percent.
Yet, in North Carolina state funding for higher education went down more than 23 percent between 2008 and 2015 (or $2,866 per student), according to theCenter on Budget and Policy Priorities.
This is why UNC’s renewed commitment to increasing access and affordability and attracting and graduating more low-income students is so important. We can’t afford otherwise.
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 is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.