Prosperity Watch Issue 42, No. 4: Barriers to post-secondary enrollment higher for some

Job training and workforce development are critical for preparing North Carolina’s workers for the industries of the future and for ensuring upward mobility in family incomes.

In today’s high-skill economy, a high school diploma just isn’t sufficient to meet these challenges. As a result, some kind of post-secondary education is essential for unlocking pathways out of a low-wage future and into middle class prosperity. Unfortunately, barriers to post-secondary enrollment in North Carolina persist for communities of color, contributing to differences in family income over the long term and holding down the state’s overall economic well-being.

In the context of an economy that is currently growing a significant number of low-wage jobs – yet whose jobs are projected to increasingly require post-secondary education – workforce development is the bridge to ensure workers can access better-paying jobs and the state can attract and grow higher-wage industries that demand an educated workforce. In the five years since the end of the Great Recession, North Carolina has seen a widening gulf between wages at the top and at the bottom, with the vast majority of jobs created coming in the lowest-wage industries. Eighty percent of the new jobs generated over the past five years have been created in industries that on average don’t pay enough to make ends meet: $33,709 for one worker, one child in North Carolina according to the 2014 Living Income Standard. Yet projections by the Center on Education and the Workforce suggest that more than 60 percent of jobs by 2020 will require some form of post-secondary education and that such skills training will increasingly be the only pathway to middle-class security for North Carolinians.

One key to unlocking pathways out of a low-wage future is increasing the number of workers who have access to and complete skills training and education beyond high school. In North Carolina, barriers persist for young workers in terms of enrollment in post-secondary education programs. As seen in the following chart, young African American and Hispanic workers have lower enrollment rates than both their white counterparts and the statewide average in terms of enrollment. According to data from the Working Poor Families Project, 45 percent of white workers aged 18-24 are enrolled in some post-secondary program, while just 37 percent of young African American workers and 23 percent of young Hispanic workers are similarly enrolled. Even more troubling is the fact that North Carolina’s Hispanic enrollment rate is one of the worst in the country—45th of 50 states in 2012.

This matters because differences in post-secondary enrollment reduce the overall numbers of workers with post-secondary education and can exacerbate disparities in income, bringing down economic performance. Given the overall demographic trends in North Carolina, the state’s working-age population will become increasingly diverse. Leading up to 2003, 9 out of 10 workers in the state were white or African American; now it’s 8.5 out of 10 workers, a shift that will only continue in the years ahead.  It is therefore critical that all young people are prepared for the future and can earn wages that support their families. Already, African Americans and Hispanics earn significantly less than their white counterparts. Additionally, in the years since the recession ended, African American wages have fallen almost three times faster than the wages of white workers. The wages of Hispanic workers have fallen by twice the amount of their white counterparts. Given that higher educational attainment usually translates into higher wages and incomes, lower post-secondary enrollment among workers of color contributes to lower incomes despite work than their white counterparts.

Among the proven policy options for ensuring equal access and improved completion for all young people – especially young people of color – are investments that make college affordable through state financial aid and holding tuition growth in check.  Moreover, supports for young people of color such as the community college system’s Minority Male Mentoring hold promise in supporting young people of color as they embark on post-secondary training. In many cases, they are the first in their families to do so. Finally, the state needs to significantly upgrade its outreach efforts to identify and enroll workers of color in post-secondary programs, recognizing that targeted efforts will require new strategies and deliver results for the economy as a whole.  
Enrolling more people of color in post-secondary programs won’t necessarily yield higher wages for these workers unless they successfully complete these programs and secure job placements, and discrimination in the workplace is completely erased. It is, however, an important first barrier to scale in the effort to move the state towards improved educational outcomes for its workforce and a more attractive environment for businesses to grow.

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