From R. Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System; Tom Ross, University of North Carolina system president; and A. Hope Williams, president of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities:
In the midst of the recent election cycle, there has been no shortage of heated discussion about getting Americans back to work. Before we go forward, we need to take a step back and evaluate what we have to work with: today there are over three million jobs in the United States that remain unfilled. Why? We do not have workers with the necessary skills to do these jobs.
Improving access to higher education is a key piece of addressing this very serious challenge. In the same breath that we bemoan the unemployment numbers, we also send the message that the cost of college puts higher education out of reach for most families. We need to arm our students with the tools they need to be successful and skilled. Moreover, we need to provide them, and their families, with the information they need to make thoughtful decisions about their education.
Here in North Carolina, we have a truly historic commitment to providing high-quality, low-cost higher education. The long-standing efforts of the three sectors of higher education – the University of North Carolina, the North Carolina Community College System and the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities – have helped to promote student access and success. In addition, these higher education sectors for over a decade have been engaged in a collaborative partnership called College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC), along with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the State Education Assistance Authority and College Foundation, Inc. Our state has moved from 38th to 20th in its enrollment of low-income students in college. But it is clear that to achieve our full potential more must be done.
Extensive research among low-income families has demonstrated that there are real gaps in specific knowledge of what college actually costs and the aid available to pay for it; and that this misinformation too often leads families to cross colleges off the list as out of reach. To help remedy this, the College Board and CFNC sent information about various options for higher education, financial aid, and the benefits of earning a degree to low-income parents of middle-school students across the state.
It became clear that while there was a general knowledge of education options, the information that was provided helped to create deeper knowledge not only about the benefits of a college degree, but also about the genuinely affordable options for higher education in our state.
As educators, we need to work together to help families understand that students often pay far less than published prices for college and many low-income families find it surprisingly affordable to send their children to North Carolina institutions.
Let’s help our students get prepared for, get into and get through school. Let’s help them become those skilled workers who are ready and able to fill the jobs we know are already waiting for them.