Last month, the UNC Board of Governors unanimously selected former N.C. Community College System president Peter Hans to head the North Carolina University system. His appointment underscores the state’s commitment to providing its residents with affordable postsecondary education options and strong career pathways, plus reengaging adults who have completed some college to reenroll and earn their degrees.

Having led a system of community colleges, Hans understands the value of not only a bachelor’s degree, but also that of both associate and technical degrees. Many feel that he’s thus well positioned to equip all students to climb the socioeconomic ladder, no matter what path they choose.

But choosing which path to pursue has become increasingly difficult for young adults amid the COVID-19 crisis. Across the nation, young people are rethinking their college attendance plans, with one-third saying they will delay or cancel enrollment altogether if universities opt to conduct classes entirely online. Yet that doesn’t change the reality that two-thirds of new jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2030, so holding a degree or some form of postsecondary credential is increasingly essential to earning a livable wage and closing wealth and income gaps.

This is particularly true in the Tar Heel State. A recent study published by our organization finds that workers with more education in the state, on average, strongly out-earn those with less.

Authored by economist John Winters, What You Make Depends on Where You Live examines earnings by degree type across North Carolina and its five largest metropolitan regions. The report shows that, on average, those with bachelor’s degrees in the Tar Heel State earn 59 percent more than those with associate degrees ($83,363 versus $52,325 for full-time, full-year workers) and a whopping 90 percent more than those with only a high school diploma.

Still, as our report’s title suggests, where you live can affect how much you earn, since local labor markets, the cost of living and the cost of college all play a part. This means that statewide averages mask important differences in earnings potential across North Carolina. In Charlotte, for example, the state’s largest metro region (with over 2.5 million residents) and home to a healthy and diverse economy, bachelor’s degree holders earn 64 percent more than workers with associate degrees, one of the largest earnings gaps in over 100 metro regions analyzed. Further north, Raleigh — part of the “Research Triangle,” nestled in a population of 1.3 million—sees a similar pattern: Bachelor’s degree holders there earn on average $93,998, versus $58,664 earned by those with two-year degrees (a 60 percent difference). In these cities, the conventional wisdom promoting traditional four-year degrees is sound.

Yet in other regions of the state, the premiums narrows between two- and four-year degrees. Take the state’s much smaller metro region Winston-Salem, a two-hour drive to the west. With a population of around 670,000, the earnings advantage for a bachelor’s degree versus associate degree shrinks to just 46 percent. At the same time, associate degree holders see a 25 percent advantage in earnings over those with just a high school diploma, an advantage above the national average of 17 percent. We see a similar situation in the small metro Durham-Chapel Hill region on the outskirts of Raleigh and the Research Triangle.

While we can’t say what’s driving these differences, we do know that associate degree holders who opt to live in the less populated and lower-cost-of-living Winston-Salem region typically make more than if they were to move to Charlotte or Raleigh. These findings mirror a national pattern, where we see that the larger the metro area, the greater the premium to higher education.

Transparency about what students earn based on their level of education, and how these earnings vary by geography, matters because not every student wants — nor needs — a four-year degree or a white-collar job. Moreover, the exponential increase in the costs of college over the past two decades unfortunately excludes many from even considering such a substantial investment.

In the face of social and economic uncertainty, North Carolina’s students should remain steadfast in their commitment to pursuing higher education, whether that results in a two-year degree, a technical certificate, or a bachelor’s degree. But instead of just wondering “should I go to college?” young adults would be wise to also ask, “where do I want to live?”

Michael J. Petrilli and Olivia Piontek are president and associate, respectively, at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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