ncIMPACT Hosts Town Hall on Ensuring Student Success at the School of Government

Moderator Anita Brown-Graham discusses student success with panelists Peter Hans, Thomas Stith, and Catherine Truitt

The School of Government hosted an ncIMPACT Town Hall event on Thursday, October 28, 2021, on “Ensuring Student Success in 2021 and Beyond.” Two groups of panelists—one featuring North Carolina’s major educational leaders and the second consisting of representatives from the state’s banking, manufacturing, workforce development, and student sector—spoke about the importance of continuing to ensure student success and the partnerships education and private commerce can forge to create stronger pathways for this success. 

ncIMPACT Initiative Director Anita Brown-Graham facilitated and moderated this discussion in the Knapp-Sanders Building in front of a live audience of leaders from across the state. The event was taped for the ncIMPACT media series, which focuses on civic innovations, partnerships, and solutions that address complex policy issues while improving the lives of North Carolinians. This town hall, along with others held this fall in Asheville and Greenville, will be broadcast on PBS North Carolina and various online and social media outlets later this year through the generous support of Civic Federal Credit Union.

ncIMPACT has collaborated with the NC Community College System, NC Department of Public Instruction, and University of North Carolina System to make this effort to highlight student success initiatives possible. 


Reengaging Students

The discussion of student success in North Carolina comes at a critical juncture in the state’s educational landscape: prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina required some form of postsecondary degree or credential. Now, the pandemic has accelerated this trend while simultaneously slowing attainment of these credentials. The state’s educational systems face struggles in retaining students whose academic careers may have been disrupted by the impact of COVID-19.

“We know that many students who perhaps left the state to go and live with family elsewhere [did so] because parents were having to choose between working and staying home,” said panelist Catherine Truitt, superintendent of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. “Our districts are working hard to find those students and to even more, reengage especially our teenagers in their K-12 education experience.”

In service to this objective, ncIMPACT launched a program for Local Education Attainment Collaboratives, which supports 10 North Carolina communities in their work to increase the number of individuals successfully completing post-secondary credentials required in today’s workforce. This effort was spearheaded in coordination with the myFutureNC organization, which seeks to ensure that two million North Carolinians have a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030.

An equally important aim to achieve this goal, along with reengaging adolescents in their foundational education, is to bring adult learners who may have delayed completion of their secondary education back into the conversation. 

When it comes to adult learners in North Carolina, UNC System President Peter Hans said, "We have got a lot more to do."

“I think everyone deserves a second chance. People who are 18 to 20 don't necessarily know what they're going to do for the rest of their lives. The economy is changing so rapidly, and they will need new skills—a new basis of knowledge—as they grow older.”

Hans announced during the panel that, in order to engage this demographic, the UNC System is launching a major adult learner initiative to help one million North Carolinians complete their four-year, secondary degree.

“Those North Carolinians need flexible opportunity that allows them to stay in their hometowns. College should be rigorous and challenging, but the journey to college should be warm and inviting,” he said. “We're going to step up in supporting our adult learners complete their four-year degree.”


“A Pathway to Defining Economic Opportunity”

In order to help build the pipeline of talent needed to fill jobs across North Carolina, panelist Thomas Stith, president of the North Carolina Community College System, says there is a wealth of untapped potential among the state’s community college students.

“Community college is the key, not only academically in our state, but economically. We certainly feel very strongly that we're the first choice for affordable and accessible education in North Carolina,” Stith said.

Stith is optimistic that, with continued philanthropic support to engage community college students on the horizon, North Carolina can again position itself to grow its workforce and expand its economic reach.

“And as we work through this pandemic, we're seeing the results as we continue to partner with nonprofit partners,” he said.  “We have several colleges participating in a pilot, again focusing on adult learners in six of our community colleges. We think we have a very comprehensive approach. There’s an opportunity within the community college system, a pathway to not only educational excellence but a defining economic opportunity.”


Removing Barriers to Success

Skylar Mclean, a current UNC-Chapel Hill nursing student, spoke on the panel about the barriers she has faced in earning a four-year degree. A transfer student from Central Carolina Community College, Mclean said many young people are not aware of the opportunity to transition out of community college and into a four-year school.

“In high school, a lot of people don't tell you about this route,” she said. “I personally did not know too much about CSTEP until about two weeks before their application was due.”

The Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (CSTEP) grants talented low- and moderate-income high school and community college students guaranteed admission to UNC-Chapel Hill following the completion of their community college curriculum.

For Chris Rivera, stories like Mclean’s are a reminder of why he chose a profession in workforce development. Rivera is the executive director of GuilfordWorks, a public-private initiative dedicated to building a talent pipeline to equip job-seekers with the skills and training needed to secure higher-paying jobs.

“I love Skylar's story in that it reinforces the importance of the work that we at the local area do,” he said.

For Mclean, and countless other North Carolinians, the path to gaining the credentials and skills employers are searching for seems unclear. That’s where organizations like his step in to provide clarity.

“We talk about individuals having these non-traditional ways to get into two or four-year institutions and not knowing which way they want to go,” he said. “That's what systems like ours do, in providing the students the support and guidance and resources to mitigate barriers that they may experience.”

Ralph Emerson, director of a manufacturing program at Cummins, Inc., knows all too well that these barriers—largely through a lack of awareness about the range and complexity of skills needed by employers—cut many promising candidates off from job opportunities in which they could excel. 

“The industry I'm in, they think it's just running machines. They think about the manufacturing of yesterday. Manufacturing today is very technical. It's robotics. It's very collaborative,” he said. “We have roles in finance. We have roles in supply chain logistics. We have roles in engineering, of course—maintenance, electrical, operations, quality.”


A Tremendous Foundation for Growth

This drive to make students, particularly young ones, aware of the multitude of employment options and skills needed to successfully enter the workforce is vital, said Charles Bowman, president of Bank of America NC. What is even more essential, according to Bowman, is for business to create opportunities to invest in building upon young people’s skillsets and career development.

Bank of America is doing just that with “The Academy”, a company initiative that provides coaching opportunities and career development advice to employees seeking growth opportunities and jobs that will secure a higher salary.

While the future of educational attainment and subsequent career success for students in North Carolina inevitably faces challenges, Bowman expressed confidence that North Carolina is uniquely positioned to unlock sustained economic growth in the future.

“We have a tremendous foundation to do anything we want to do,” he said. “We've got great universities, and there aren't many states in the country that have the wealth of higher education that we have.”

“We also have levels of cooperation. I think we’ve got to get better at having those conversations earlier. And we have to be much more nimble than we've ever been. Jobs change rapidly.”

Still, when he looks across the landscape of North Carolina’s next generation of workers, he saw a vast amount of potential and plenty of reason to be optimistic.

“Business will follow talent. It'll always go where talent is. We've got to keep upping our game in terms of that. I think overall, I couldn't be more thrilled to live in North Carolina because I think we've got a better opportunity than almost any state in America to go farther than we've ever been.”

The ncIMPACT Initiative (ncIMPACT) is a statewide initiative launched by the UNC School of Government in 2017 to help local communities use data and evidence to improve conditions and inform decision making. Visit to learn more.