As part of the 49er Democracy Experience, this reporter observed a panel discussion with state and national higher education leaders on Sept. 4 in uptown Charlotte. Hosted by the Lumina Foundation, the panel talked about the role of higher education in the social and economic future of North Carolina and the United States.
The Lumina Foundation works to ensure that all students who come to college graduate with meaningful, high-quality degrees and credentials that enable them to contribute to the workforce, improve society and provide for themselves and their families. It seeks to help develop college educated citizens who are more ethical, healthier and less reliant on public assistance.
Based on the premise that college degrees are the currency of our democracy, the panelists and attendees shared ideas for solving engrained problems facing K-12 and higher education. Panelists included Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis; Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce Director Anthony Carnevale; Former North Carolina Central University Chancellor Charlie Nelms; American Chamber of Commerce Executives President Mick Fleming; and Young Invincibles Executive Director Aaron Smith.
One of the Lumina Foundation’s primary objectives is its College Advantage initiative, which is designed to increase the percentage of Americans with high quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025. In 2010, only 38.3 percent of Americans had such credentials (which include four-year college degrees or better, as well as professional certifications and licensures.) In the Charlotte-Gastonia region, that percentage is 43 percent.
If the Lumina Foundation achieves its objective of boosting the attainment of college degrees and credentials of Americans to 60 percent by 2025, the foundation noted that would add $500 billion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.
According to the panelists:
- Two-thirds of people without college educations in 1980s still ranked as middle class. But since 1983, the wages of such people have steadily declined, while the wages of college-educated people increased. That trend continues.
- Unemployment for those with a high school education or less is three times worse than for the college-educated, during the recent recession as well as the nascent economic recovery.
- Today’s labor market demands more college-educated and highly credentialed workers – innovative people not just those who are technically trained.
- Access to higher education is no longer the burning issue – attainment and completion of degrees and other credentials are more pressing now.
- Education attainment is a “consuming issue” among Chambers of Commerce. In the past, business leaders tended to view higher education in a “too personal” way – seeking to locate interns and graduates only for their organizations. Now, business interests are beginning to take a more global view in shaping and supporting education policy.
- Business leaders are increasingly looking for educated workers who have well developed “soft skills” and critical thinking capabilities. Business is looking for a “new inventory” of smart, capable people.
- Leaders in education, business and philanthropy agree that young people should become active in shaping education policy.
- Female participation in higher education has bested that of males for many years; men are beginning to make gains, though it will take them more than 10 years to match the rate of female participation. The increase in male participation in higher education is very important, because it is now much harder for males without college degrees to find substantive, sustainable work.
- States must be careful to educate their resident citizens and not rely too heavily on “imported” talent provided by educated people who move in from other states or countries; those people can just as easily relocate again.