Message from the Chair

Board Chair, Mary Claudia “MC” Pilon

Dear Friends,

In November 2017, members of the My Future NC commission met for the first of several conversations about educational attainment and its impact on the future of our great state. Walking in, we knew the work ahead of us was important. Walking out, we realized how much there is to do, how urgently we need to do it, and how everyone in our state has an important role to play in the process.

North Carolina is one of the very last states to set clear goals for educational attainment and develop a comprehensive statewide education plan to realize those goals, and we can’t wait any longer. That’s because the end game isn’t a specific attainment milestone like high school or college graduation – it’s the workforce. Our rapidly changing population and evolving economy demand that we act now to invest in the education of our homegrown and in-migrant talent.

Data from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce and the Lumina Foundation indicate that two out of three jobs in our state now require some form of postsecondary education, yet only 47% of working-age North Carolinians have earned a credential beyond a high school diploma. In the future, the fastest growing sectors of our state’s economy with the highest predicted job growth will demand employees with increasingly higher levels of educational attainment.

The link between educational attainment and our state’s economic strength is clear. When given more opportunities to continue their education beyond high school, North Carolinians are better prepared to compete for higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs. In return, the presence of a well-trained workforce is key to attracting and creating more jobs in our state. This trend is one of the reasons why communities with higher levels of educational attainment tend to have a stronger economy, boast a higher quality of life, and are less impacted in times of economic stress.

We have many valuable assets at our fingertips, including some of the finest postsecondary education systems in the country, but these haven’t yet translated into opportunity for all North Carolinians. By inspiring cross-sector collaboration and alignment among business and industry, education, government, philanthropy, and the faith-based and nonprofit communities, we can come together to change that.

Each section of the education continuum plays a critical role in preparing our state’s citizens for meaningful employment. Early childhood opportunities lay the foundation for strong primary and secondary school experiences, which set students up for success in our state’s postsecondary institutions. Degrees, diplomas, and credentials are only as valuable as they are relevant to the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in our state’s evolving labor market. The decisions we make – or don’t make – about education today are certain to play out in tomorrow’s economy.

It’s our choice. Do we cross our fingers and hope for the best, or do we come together as a state to proactively shape our future?

My Future NC is one example of our state’s commitment to action. In the weeks and months since that first meeting, commissioners have focused their energy on listening and learning from fellow North Carolinians. It’s hard to put into words how energizing and eye-opening it is to sit down with others who care deeply about education in our state and listen to their stories, experiences, and perspectives. Each discussion – be it with a community leader, employer, student, college president, parent, or educator – helps us better understand what it will take to transform education in North Carolina to meet the needs of our state and all who learn here.

Among the many lessons we’ve learned so far is the importance of context. Understanding a community’s unique history, appreciating its position in the present, and looking ahead to its future are so important as we think about the ways that our state’s schools, postsecondary institutions, employers, and communities can best collaborate.

The John M. Belk Endowment recognizes that there is, and always will be, much to discover about education in our state, particularly as it relates to our three focus areas: postsecondary access, completion, and workforce relevance. Inspired by the work of My Future NC, we find ourselves in an exciting period of exploration and analysis. Learning is important and valued by everyone on our team, and we are committed to dedicating time and space for it.

We also appreciate that to be effective, we need to translate what we learn into coordinated action. Ultimately, our success is driven by the depth of our commitment to getting things done and the strength of our partnerships in breaking down silos and generating collective learning and impact.

As we await the recommendations of the My Future NC commission, our team is taking a closer look at our work along and within our state’s education continuum. We’ve kept the scope of our grantmaking efforts intentionally broad because we recognize that addressing one point on the continuum – one stop along a North Carolinian’s journey to and through postsecondary education and into the workforce – will never be as effective as improving many parts of that journey at the same time.

We’re also focused on driving change at multiple levels within the education continuum. Our state’s learners don’t exist in a vacuum – they attend schools, colleges, and universities, and those institutions are governed by many different systems. Supporting these institutions and systems as they innovate to better serve individual students is a critical part of our work to promote access, reinforce completion, and emphasize workforce relevance.

Seeing these strategies come to life in our grantmaking fills us with hope for the future. Nonprofit organizations like College Advising Corps and Single Stop are doing amazing work to connect students and their families with information and resources, increasing their likelihood of entering a postsecondary program, persisting through their studies, and completing a degree or credential. Institutions like Davidson County Community College are rethinking how to market themselves, attracting potential students to programs that offer degrees and credentials in the region’s high-demand fields with innovative tools like this enrollment bus. Our state’s community college system is promoting student persistence and completion through the work of its Student Success Center, and North Carolina State University’s Envisioning Excellence for Community College Leadership program is redesigning the professional development and support provided to community college presidents and trustees and creating a pipeline of talented leaders who will guide and shape student success on community college campuses for years to come. Together, partnerships like these are redefining what is possible for our students and the institutions and systems that serve them.

North Carolina is an incredible place to live, and our world-class community colleges and universities add tremendous value to our state. It’s so important that we recognize and leverage our strengths as we work to realize the promise of a stronger North Carolina – a North Carolina where all residents have the option to further their education, realize their fullest potential, and apply their many talents in our state’s workforce.

We’re committed to doing whatever it takes to turn this vision into reality. The stakes are high, and the time is right.

Together, let’s elevate through education.

Keep pounding!

MC Belk Pilon
Board Chair