40% of Escambia residents have a college degree. Achieve Escambia wants to do better.

 

By 2025, local education organization Achieve Escambia hopes to increase the amount of residents with at least an associate degree by nearly 20 percent.

The push to increase post-secondary attainment comes as part of Achieve Escambia's new partnership with the Florida College Access Network, a statewide organization focused on widening access to post-secondary education.

Based on Census Bureau estimates, only 40.1 percent of residents in the county in 2015 had at least a two-year degree. But over the next seven years, the goal is to raise that amount to 60 percent, at the minimum.

"Your education cannot stop at high school, or you will be stuck in poverty," said Kimberly Krupa, Achieve Escambia executive director. "Just looking at jobs that will require a credential in the future, more than 60 percent will."


In the end, a post-secondary degree also carries serious ramifications for earning potential. According to the Florida College Access Network's figures, workers in Escambia County with an associate degree averaged $57,106 in annual pay. But those with only a high school diploma averaged a much more modest $26,440.

More: Achieve Escambia has the data, now what?

To address this issue, Krupa said Achieve Escambia will now serve as the Florida College Access Network's only member in the Florida Panhandle. She explained the work with the state organization will involve Achieve Escambia establishing a coordinating body to identify local impediments to post-secondary education and create an action plan to eradicate the roadblocks.

 Jesse Martin learning about aviation maintenance technology

Student Jesse Marti learns aviation maintenance technology at George Stone. Marti began studying aviation repair and maintenance while as a student at Washington High School. (Photo: Tony Giberson/tgiberson@pnj.com)

Krupa said the coordinating body, known as a Local College Access Network, should start meeting in February. The group's first meetings will explore the access gaps along the local education spectrum and likely include bringing together officials from the Escambia County School District, Pensacola State College and the University of West Florida to better understand the issue.

Although still early in the process, Krupa mentioned several possibilities to tackle the county's barriers to post-secondary education. They included more engagement with parents to explain the benefits of higher education, encouraging more high school students to enroll in advanced placement courses and increasing awareness of the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program, which provides funding awards for students of merit.

This is what it takes to improve in that 40 percent," Krupa said. "It's the incremental change that helps add up to moving the needle on a Census data point, like post-secondary achievement."

More: Achieve Escambia is data-driven endeavor

Another possibility involves a concerted effort between Achieve Escambia and the Florida College Access Network to boost completion among Escambia County high school seniors of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

According to the Florida College Access Network's website, 59 percent of Florida high school seniors who complete a FAFSA qualify for a Pell Grant, an award for low-income students that does not need to be repaid. But the state ranks 34th in FAFSA completion, which has led the state organization to conclude Florida students annually fail to take advantage of $100 million in Pell Grants.

"And for students who complete the FAFSA, they also have the opportunity to qualify for not only Pell Grants but other forms of financial aid and scholarships," said Laurie Meggesin, executive director of the Florida College Access Network.

Lastly, Achieve Escambia also intends to highlight technical certifications as another beneficial form of post-secondary education. The school district's George Stone Technical Center offers a range of certifications. They could factor mightily for the future earnings of the county's students.

Jeff Strohl, director of research at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, said as of today, about 46 million people hold a certification across the U.S. labor market. Although certifications do not supplant a traditional degree in their impact on job earnings, Strohl said they often accentuate a degree and lead to higher pay.

"The reason we think they help is they're really a good signal to employers about a validated skillset," he said. "Certifications are very work- and skill-oriented. Their prospects moving forward are quite high as employers are looking for better and better signals from students about being able to do the job."

Moving forward in the organization's efforts to increase post-secondary attainment, Krupa said Achieve Escambia will focus on three areas of certification.

"The largest growth we're seeing in our certification programs is based on industry demand," she said. "We know that growth in industry certifications is going to catapult. Advanced manufacturing, IT, cybersecurity, those certifications are through the roof."

 
Jill Thomas