The federal Department of Education recently granted $25.7 million to the UNC System as part of its national GEAR UP program. The initiative attempts to increase the number of students from low-income backgrounds graduating from high school and moving on to higher education. In particular, it focuses on a key barrier for first-generation students: a lack of knowledge about the opportunities, requirements and financing associated with higher education.
North Carolina started its branch of the program in 2012 with a seven-year contract, which was renewed with this grant. This time around, the state is launching new efforts to boost access. For example, one trial program will give students at five middle schools support and extracurricular opportunities through their first year of college.
This program is essential for settling the inequality which has historically denied access to higher education for poor students and students of color. It is also crucial to maintaining the relevance of our state’s workforce in an evolving economy where uniquely human skills are most valuable. Our workforce is behind the curve: While an estimated 67% of jobs require post-high school education, only 47% of working-age people have a post-secondary degree or certificate.
UNC-Chapel Hill released a study in 2019 looking at factors preventing high school students from completing a college degree. The report showed a mix of good and bad news for North Carolina as a whole and NC State in particular. However, the findings indicate that this grant is, in fact, going where it will be the most useful.
You might expect that dropping out of high school is one of the more serious factors here, but in fact, North Carolina is doing better than average at helping students graduate. 86% of students graduate in four years, two points better than the U.S. as a whole. This high graduation rate is also increasingly similar across racial and gender divides. White, Asian, and female students are still the most likely to finish on time, but the gap shrunk greatly between 2006 and 2017.
The main area we haven’t improved in is how likely students are to enroll in college the year after graduation. The UNC-CH study pointed out that enrollment in public, in-state institutions dropped from 50% in 2007 to only 43% in 2017. While these numbers clearly leave out private and out-of-state schools, when we look at post-high school intentions, it is clear that these institutions make up a small proportion of plans compared to the UNC System and community colleges, while also remaining quite constant in popularity over the same time period.
So in basic terms, this means that a smaller proportion of high school students are enrolling in public in-state institutions, and the trend is a clear data point that North Carolina isn’t keeping up when it comes to the transition from high school to college.
The GEAR UP program is directed at this problem. Maintaining and expanding this program is more important now than ever; the 2015-2016 school year saw non-white students making up a majority of public school students. Additionally, that year, 52% of students had free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of low economic status. From academic skills to knowledge about how to apply and pay for school, there are a number of crucial prerequisites for pursuing higher education. These can be difficult for students from families without an ingrained history of college attendance, so it’s excellent that this grant puts more focus on these needs.
That said, $25 million will not completely alter the state of education in North Carolina. For one thing, we will need more money to expand the program to more students. Additionally, by focusing on providing important information and practical resources, this program simply doesn’t address the actual cost of higher education, which itself is a key reason why some students don’t return to school after their first year.
Our school thrives with a diverse and motivated student body, and our state thrives when this student body moves into the job market. To ensure it is fulfilling its duty to educate the population, NC State still needs to put in more legwork on its end, but this grant will likely help our school attract an increasingly wide array of talented students for the near future.