We Need to Look Forward: Shared Mobility Challenges & Potential in Urban and Rural NC


These Monroe community work session participants say #NCMobilityMatters because connection = success!

Earlier this year, MDC and the John M. Belk Endowment released a report examining economic mobility across North Carolina and how communities are responding to recent Equality of Opportunity research showing that intergenerational poverty is particularly dire in the South compared to other U.S. regions. We’ve documented several community work sessions discussing the findings from that report here on the blog. As we crossed all of North Carolina’s prosperity zones, we saw unique challenges facing rural and metro areas, but we also witnessed similarities.

Take the community work sessions that were held in Monroe and Wilkesboro. Monroe is a growing city, part of Union County (which has a significant rural population), on the edge of the Charlotte metropolis. Wilkes County is a rural county on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its population spread across 757 square miles. But in both places, we were hosted by a North Carolina community college and the local Chamber of Commerce served as a key partner. One place is trying to find a way to restore or reimagine a manufacturing economy; the other is looking for ways to encourage participation in the advanced manufacturing opportunities that exist. Both are grappling with limited public transportation systems and affordable housing options that would ease the burden on families trying to make ends meet and get ahead.

In each community work session, we’ve asked people to share their mobility stories. We ask them to think about how their starting point affected where they ended up, and to consider what people or policies or simple serendipity cleared a path or propelled them to their current situation. The same elements showed up in Wilkes County and in Monroe (and nearly every other work session):

  • Adults—often educators—who “believed in me”
  • Personal drive
  • Military service and the GI bill
  • Education (and related scholarships, including athletic opportunities)
  • Public policies (like war bonds) that allowed people to save and transfer wealth

The headwinds faced were also similar, including public policies that were not available because of discriminatory practices. These shared experiences are a great example of how systems and aspirations intersect. In order to make the elements of an infrastructure of opportunity pervasive and available to more people across North Carolina, communities must find ways to cultivate aspirations and institutions that are launching pads for the enormous potential that exists in our residents. It may seem a daunting challenge, but as Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College, said “we’re not afraid of a fight and we’re ready to move forward, ready to tackle the problems we have. We’re ready to get about the business of solving those problems. We need to look forward.”

A Personal & Community Commitment: Improving Upward Economic Mobility in the South

At the end of October, teams from four Southern cities–Athens, Ga., Chattanooga, Tenn., Greenville, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.–came to Durham to form the Network for Southern Economic Mobility. As individuals and in community teams, they will help their cities take on the challenge of improving the economic mobility of youth and young adults who are furthest from educational opportunity and economic security. The focus is young people in the lowest income brackets, a vulnerable population often stuck in inter-generational poverty. These youth and young adults are our present and future students, parents, workers, voters, and leaders. Improving prospects for them improves prospects for our prosperity as a region and nation.

“We can’t have a society where only exceptions succeed or where so much is left to the luck of the draw—especially when the deck is so often stacked against those who need the uplift of mobility the most,” said David Dodson, president of MDC. “We must be about changing the odds, not expecting people to beat the odds.”

The cities were chosen for nsem_rgb_300ppi_lthe Network, Dodson said, because they have shown a commitment to helping marginalized young people, a foundation of promising programs on which to build, the presence of industries with career potential for young people, and top leaders who see the connection between economic mobility and the long-term health of their economy.

The four cities have committed to participate for at least two years, and a second cohort is expected to be selected in 2017. Participants are leaders from each community in business, government, education, nonprofits, and philanthropy. They are examining how well their existing systems are reaching those young people facing the most difficult barriers to advancement; analyzing the policies, systems, and culture that impede their progression; and then adapting or building the pathways that connect institutions and social supports, from school to rewarding employment. Communities also will learn how others are implementing structural reforms in the Southern economic and political context.

As part of the network, cities will receive customized coaching and technical assistance, hear from experts in institutional and governmental systems change, and have the opportunity to work together and share their insights into what works—and what doesn’t—as they strive to eliminate the barriers that keep a high percentage of low-income young people from rising into the middle class.

At the end of two years, Network members will be expected to have:

  • detailed systems and data analyses of those youth in the lowest income brackets and a clear understanding of the principal barriers to their economic mobility
  • a leadership group equipped to challenge institutional inequities and implement an action plan that fosters a system that serves the needs of both young people and employers that accelerates youth mobility efforts
  • a set of priorities to build stronger organizations with the culture, skills, and management capacity to refine existing programs, aggregate and realign resources, and spur innovation
  • a cross-region peer group of leaders working together on a cutting edge issue of national significance

Core support for the Network is provided by The Kresge Foundation, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, and other philanthropic investors. Communities are contributing a participation fee to support a portion of on-site technical assistance, coaching visits, and annual conferences. The network also is drawing on the expertise of senior staff at The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Participants realize there are no silver bullets, and the challenges and opportunities are different in every city:

  • In Athens and the surrounding counties, the poverty rate is 38 percent, more than double the state average. To address that, the city schools and Athens Technical College have created a partnership with a community career academy to develop dual-enrollment courses and encourage more low-income students to go to college.
  • In Chattanooga, only 7 percent of students who graduate from two high schools with large, low-income populations, go on to complete any college program within six years. The Benwood Foundation is working with the school system and the Public Education Foundation to increase graduation rates by improving teaching and offering intensive literacy support in those and other predominantly low-income high schools.
  • In Greenville, a significant problem is its limited bus system, making it hard for low-income residents to get to school and work. On the plus side, Greenville Technical College works closely with major employers to provide services through industry meetings, sales meetings with business and industry, and partnerships within the community.
  • In Jacksonville, only 38 percent of working-age adults have a two- or four-year degree. The city has responded with programs to focus on identifying and responding to the needs of potential high school drop-outs, and has raised the graduation rate from 60 percent to 77percent in the last eight years.

Their leaders recognize there is much work to be done to create a comprehensive infrastructure of opportunity so that the success of isolated efforts leads to integrated ones that produce pervasive, positive outcomes for all young people. Improved outcomes depend on affirming leadership, culture, and systems. As leaders act to close the gap between current reality and the desired future, they can shape culture, the community habits, attitudes, and values that influence the appetite for improvement and shape individual and system behavior. Since every system is perfectly designed to get the results it produces, that intersection of individual and organizational behavior is key—organizations are made up of individuals, after all.

Since systems are perfectly designed, we have to think outside those systems and apply a new logic to build systems that work differently and, therefore, get different results. In his piece, Divided No More (required reading for the Network!), Parker Palmer explores what individuals can do to make new structures and ways of working that create new organizations and systems. It begins with internal commitments to a new approach that leads people to “discover each other and enter into relations of mutual encouragement and support.” As a learning network, the aim of the Network for Southern Economic Mobility is to facilitate these connections within the participating communities and across all four cities. A central principle of learning together is providing a place where individuals can share troubling data, process frustrating experiences, and air grievances—not simply for reflection or validation, but to, as Palmer says, “enter one’s convictions into the mix of communal discourse…. to project one’s ideas so that others can hear them, respond to them, and be influenced by them … so that one’s ideas can be tested and refined in the public crucible.”

During last month’s Network convening, two Durham practitioners attested to the importance of this kind of refinement. In a panel discussion about approaching systems change, Andrea Harris, founder and former executive director of the Institute and Tom Jaynes, Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Support at Durham Technical Community College, shared their hard-won insights on working inside and outside of systems and institutions to improve educational access and economic security for those furthest from opportunity.

Harris emphasized the importance of personal conviction and collaborative effort: “Be true to yourself and also know that you don’t change anything alone.” Jaynes shared a lesson from the community college: the importance of evaluating a system from a student’s perspective because “what you think is happening, isn’t happening… and until you know how the system performs, you can’t know what needs to change.”

To find out what’s actually happening, communities that want to improve upward economic mobility for young people must examine how well existing systems are reaching those young people who face the most difficult barriers to advancement; analyze the policies, systems, and culture that impede their progression; and adapt or build the pathways that connect institutions and social supports, from school to rewarding employment. Cities in the Network for Southern Economic Mobility are set to take on this challenge, in the region where economic mobility is most constrained. As Lemuel LaRoche, a member of the Athens team and executive director of Chess and Community, said, “We have all the pieces we need to fix ourselves, but do we have the will? Is that old system going to move out of the way?” It’s a question the entire region must answer.

North Carolina’s Economic Imperative: Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity

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Since its inception, the State of the South blog has examined patterns of economic mobility and educational progress across the region, looking at what demography and geography say about who is being successfully prepared for educational and economic success. In a new report commissioned by the John M. Belk Endowment, we applied this lens to the state of North Carolina-a state that prides itself on being a beacon: from creating the nation’s first public university and one of its earliest community college systems to pioneering the concept of research parks that bridge education and industry.

But as we’ve seen across the South, far too many people in the state are struggling to make ends meet. Even in the most economically dynamic metros like Charlotte and Raleigh, people who grow up in low-income families are more likely to stay there as adults than almost anywhere else in the nation, and only small numbers make it to the middle- or upper-income levels despite thriving labor markets that seem full of opportunity. For young people born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution in Charlotte, for example, 38 percent will stay there as adults, another 31 percent will only move up one quintile, and just 4 percent will make it to the highest quintile.

Other statistics in the report are equally troubling:

  • Upward mobility in 22 of North Carolina’s 24 regions called “commuting zones” ranks within the bottom quarter nationally-and Charlotte, Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro rank in the bottom 10 of the nation’s 100 largest commuting zones.
  • While mobility varies depending on where people live, only about one-third of children born into North Carolina families making less than $25,000 annually manage to climb into middle and upper income levels as adults.
  • Latinos and African Americans are more likely than whites to be in poverty and attain lower levels of education, leaving them less prepared for high-skill, well-paying jobs-and those disparities will increasingly affect North Carolina’s economy as these populations grow to make up a larger proportion of the population.
  • A family of one parent and one child needs an income of $21 an hour to cover basic living expenses in North Carolina, yet only 26 percent of full-time jobs pay median earnings of that amount.

While there is significant variation in mobility levels across North Carolina, no part of the state meets the national average. These mobility patterns, paired with the rapidly changing demographics of the workforce, have significant implications for North Carolina. Gov. Pat McCrory’s postsecondary goal is to ensure that by 2025, 67 percent of North Carolinians will have education and training beyond high school. And there’s good reason for a goal like that: while 31 percent of North Carolinians who attain only a high school degree live in poverty, just 5 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree do. In order to meet the 2025 goal and the competitive demands of a 21st century economy with a skilled workforce, we need to reduce disparate outcomes in education along racial and ethnic lines.

These are not issues for individuals alone, but for communities and states: If North Carolina’s business and industry is to thrive, it is imperative that the citizenry have the skills and training necessary to thrive, too. Since this progress has to happen for individuals where they are-in our rural towns and our metropolitan centers-we profiled eight communities across the state, looking for evidence of vision and practices that generate forward motion for individuals and communities. Within these communities, we saw everything from a rural, four-county region with an intertwined history and economy but limited access to living-wage work with career potential, to a city in one of North Carolina’s fastest growing counties with a diverse manufacturing sector and a growing Hispanic population-and just about everything in-between. We saw efforts that were inspiring in both aspiration and implementation. For example:

  • In Pitt County, educational institutions and economic development leaders are investing together to address needs of both the working population and industries, like the recent collaboration between Eastern Carolina University and Pitt Community College: the Biopharmaceutical Workforce Development and Manufacturing Center of Excellence. The center will link education and industry to ensure that residents looking to enter advanced manufacturing in health sciences are trained in the specific skills needed in Pitt County’s growing economy, attracting both workers and new industry.
  • Wilmington’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Youth Violence used an assessment of local food insecurity, school dropouts, and gang violence, as well as a scan of community resources and organizations, to guide their decisions about how and where to act. The Commission of leaders from the faith-based community, private businesses, local nonprofits, and elected officials is charged with coordinating resources, with a focus on youth ages 0–24 and their families. The analysis informed the creation of a Youth Enrichment Zone, a geographical area in the city where they target programmatic activity and investment.

(Read the full report for stories from Guilford County; Wilkes County; Fayetteville; Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties; Monroe; and Jackson, Macon, and Swain and the Qualla Boundary.)

The causes of economic immobility do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of systems that can both ease and impede individuals’ access to opportunities. For example, if someone wants to start a construction company, he or she may find it difficult to procure the necessary equipment and hire skilled laborers due to the lack of business opportunities. In spite of the fact that equipment can be purchased from resellers (learn more here), finding skilled laborers might seem like a herculean task. To combat such situations, improved access can often give them more control over economic outcomes for their families and, in many cases, break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. This requires a strong infrastructure of opportunity-a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connects individuals to postsecondary credentials and economic opportunity regardless of background. The creation of that infrastructure of opportunity is beyond the reach of any single institution to create: discrete pockets of excellence are insufficient for changing the trajectory of broad opportunity and improving education and employment outcomes at scale. To move from discrete programming to an aligned infrastructure of opportunity requires:

  • adoption of a guiding framework for communities to assess and create an action plan that is grounded in a common vision of economic productivity and advancement for the community and its people
  • design and implementation of research-based policies and programs that can be scaled for an entire population, hold high expectations for educators, employers, and the workforce
  • maintaining momentum through continuous improvement
  • commitment to providing adequate resources that support the common vision.

“One key piece of the solution,” says MDC President David Dodson, “is that corporations and businesses need to play a bigger role in working with educators, government and community organizations to ensure we are developing the talent our advanced economy needs, and guiding students toward better paying jobs that are in demand and can elevate their quality of life.”

Dispatch from the Road: DREAM 2016

David Dodson asks, “Who’s moving up?”

“Education makes a difference. Our work is an act of liberation.” Yesterday at Achieving the Dream’s Annual Institute of Student Success—DREAM—in Atlanta, MDC President David Dodson spoke about the power of a postsecondary credential to improve upward economic mobility. Sharing some of the data about the “stickiness” in the lower income quintiles and the importance of educational attainment that we’ve discussed here on the blog, he asked the community college practitioners “What is your leadership role in the mobility ecosystem as you work with those stuck at the bottom?” Three MDC staff members were at the conference this week and saw examples of colleges that are leading the way in supporting community college students’ educational success:

From Shun Robertson

Completion by Design. AACC Pathways Project. Complete College America. Achieving the Dream.

If you’ve spent any time in the community college space, you’ve heard of these student success initiatives and several more. These are national initiatives, but there also are ones at other levels: regional (like RGV Focus in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas), statewide (like Virginia’s Developmental Education Redesign), and institutional (like Valencia’s Learning in Community, LinC). Most community colleges participate in overlapping initiatives along the education-to-career pipeline, focusing on topics such as college readiness, developmental education, retention, transfer, or connection to employment.

When Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, decided to map the initiatives they are engaged in, they counted 52(!) student success initiatives. Some initiatives are embedded in course design, some require student self-selection (tutoring, supplemental instruction), and others target specific populations (TRIO). The initiatives were not aligned, each having their own goals and anticipated outcomes. Columbus State created an initiative assessment strategy last year, starting by collecting student-level data on initiative participation. Among their findings, they found that 96 percent of degree-seeking students participated in one or more initiatives. When considering success in coursework (C or better), the success rate for students who participated in only one initiative was 62 percent, compared to 71 percent for those who participated in five or more initiatives. The team plans to do a cluster analysis to figure out which initiatives working together have the highest impact on retention and graduation. The big takeaway from Columbus State’s effort: success interventions, when added together, make an impact on overall success rates.

From Jenna Bryant

Navigating educational pathways can be difficult, especially for first-generation college students. Students transitioning from community colleges to four-year universities—through structured transfer programs or continuing on their own after degree completion—can often feel like just another number, lost in the masses of other students on campus. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which are smaller than most predominantly white institutions (PWIs), allow for smaller class sizes and provide all the social groups, extracurricular activities, and sports teams as larger PWIs, but with lower tuition.

Shun Abby Jenna

The MDC contingent at DREAM: Shun Robertson, Abby Parcell, and Jenna Bryant.

At a DREAM session on Wednesday, current and former leaders of community colleges and HBCUs led the audience through a spirited discussion on the benefits of institutional partnerships, including a concrete outreach strategy for HBCUs to enroll community college transfer students. The panelists stressed the importance of going beyond basic articulation agreements by creating spaces on community college campuses for students to learn about four-year institutions, especially HBCUs. Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) designates office space on campus for Kentucky State University (KSU) advisors to meet with potential students to discuss the next step in their education plan. Bluegrass and KSU hold joint activities on the community college campus that involve faculty, advisors, and recruiters to help students think through the challenges they might face as they move on to a bachelor’s degree. This intentional partnership fosters a relationship between the students and KSU, making a careful handoff between the community college and KSU, easing the transition of the student to the new campus culture. More importantly, creating intentional pathways for students to advance along the postsecondary ladder of success takes institutions out of their silos and into a partnership where the students’ successful navigation of the educational system becomes the focal point.

From Abby Parcell

DREAM 2016 also featured the premier of “No Greater Odds,” a documentary that introduces five community college students at the College of Southern Nevada. The stories show the diversity of community college students, following individuals through early college, from a four-year university to the community college and back, and the journey back to college after a decade or more out of school. The production also displays the diversity of community college student skills, with student cinematographers, editors, and musicians. You can watch a trailer and learn about arranging a screening in your community here.

Making the GED Count: It’s About Relationships

Last month, the GED Testing Service announced that they would lower the passing score for the equivalency diploma. Results from the latest version of the test, released in 2014, revealed both lower passing rates and that those who passed the tests were outperforming typical high school graduates in college courses. Since the test is meant to be equivalent to a high school diploma, the Service opted to change the passing score and recommended that states retroactively apply the new score. States are free to determine how they will apply the new policy. (North Carolina, for example, is opting for retroactive; that means almost 800 more North Carolinians will earn a GED.) In addition to the new pass score, the Service created two other cut scores: a college ready score and a college ready + credit score. They recommend students who receive these scores be excused from placement tests and/or remedial courses (college ready) or receive college credit in the related course areas.

GED Performance Levels

Source: Education Week [http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/high_school_and_beyond]

We know that educational attainment has a significant impact on lifetime earnings and economic mobility. In the South, the median income for:

  • high school graduates is $26,500
  • people with some college, $32,299
  • four-year graduates, $48,317

and postsecondary education and employment outcomes for GED graduates are less than traditional high school graduates. But alternatives like the GED are critical onramps for those who are not on a typical pathway to economic security—especially in the South where we have half a million young people who are disconnected from work or school. To create conditions for thriving Southern communities, we must encourage individual mobility that rests on a combination of personal drive, deliberately supportive institutional practices, community supports, and the eradication of structural barriers—especially for those who start out furthest from opportunity.

America’s Promise Alliance has identified a critical practice for GED students and recipients: supportive relationships. Though some have posited that these individuals were lacking the non-cognitive skills—self-control, persistence, the now-proverbial grit—Alliance research revealed that no significant difference in these social and emotional competencies existed between GED and traditional diploma youth; rather, it was supportive relationships that were missing—and along with them, the connections to social networks that are vital to securing and excelling in employment. (We’ve written about these connections here.) In Don’t Quit on Me, the Alliance explores four types of social support—emotional, informational, appraisal, and instrumental—and the role each plays in a young person’s development and ability to complete a high school credential and move on to further education and employment. They recommend the following for community leaders who are trying to support young people on this path:

Assess risk and resources of young people in your community

Improve the odds that all young people have access to an anchor [relationship]

Engage health care professionals

Include social support systems

See education and youth services as an economic development investment

They’ve also got discussion guides for educators, grantmakers, policymakers, and others who want to tackle these issues in their own communities. These discussions and relationships will be necessary to help young people—smart, persistent, gritty young people—who have a GED make their way to more education, employment, and economic security.