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Social Mobility: Wingate Truly a School of Opportunity
by Chuck Gordon

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. 

A boy grows up in a tiny hamlet in South Carolina. Precocious and curious, he dreams of one day going to college, knowing that it could lead to bigger and better things. He loves his family and his town, but he’s a dreamer and a striver; he wants options. After stops at a couple of colleges and a year-long stint selling women’s shoes, he ultimately lands at Wingate.

There, the world opens up for him, like the pages of a book he gets to co-author. At Wingate he plays wide receiver for a brand-new football program, becomes the editor of the school newspaper and travels behind the Iron Curtain with W’International. He learns things he never knew he didn’t know, meets people from around the world and starts to discover his purpose in life.

By now you’ve probably guessed that the boy was Rhett Brown ’89, ’01 (MBA), who has been president of his alma mater for the past eight years.

Dr. Brown is one of countless young people who have improved their prospects in life with the help of Wingate. As it has for decades, the University continues to serve as an incubator for people who want to open their lives up to more possibilities. “There can be no greater purpose for a college or university in this day and age,” Brown says.

Cover of spring 2023 issue of Wingate magazine

Wingate is doing a bang-up job of it, too. In studies by separate researchers, Wingate ranks among the best in the country at helping students advance upward from one socioeconomic demographic to another. According to the national think tank Third Way, Wingate is among the top tier of universities when it comes to social mobility, with graduates earning a whopping $37,000 a year more than their peers who have only a high school diploma.

Also last year, a Georgetown University study ranked Wingate third among North Carolina independent colleges and universities when it comes to return on investment for Pell Grant recipients, while U.S. News and World Report ranks Wingate first in the state for social mobility among independent, doctoral-granting institutions.

The Charlotte region is in desperate need of universities like Wingate. In 2014, a study led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty placed Charlotte last among the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S. in terms of upward mobility. If you’re born poor in Charlotte, you’re likely to stay that way.

The study was especially painful considering that, in many respects, Charlotte has been one of the nation’s economic success stories over the past few decades. City leaders have helped diversify the local economy while strengthening the banking and finance sector that has served as the area’s financial scaffolding for so long.

The city and surrounding counties – not to mention the Raleigh-Durham area – continue to grow at an impressive rate, with both Charlotte and Raleigh ranking in the top 10 in the nation in population growth and GDP growth in the past five years. But Charlotte has not been able to keep up with that rocketing expansion in terms of affordable housing and public transportation, making it even more difficult for low-income people to get ahead.

The Covid pandemic hasn’t helped matters. While students were stuck at home early in the pandemic, learning via Chromebook, people with means were more likely to be in a position to provide additional educational help to their children than those in high-poverty areas, where problems such as food insecurity exacerbated the situation.

Wingate is helping to give hope to those who have been left behind. Already, the University is home to more students from the Charlotte Metro region than any other private university in the state, and, statistically, a fairly large percentage are from families in the bottom 40 percent socioeconomically: Two-fifths of Wingate students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, and nearly a third are the first in their families to attend college, while over half of Wingate grads are the first in their family to graduate from college.

The University is also making college more affordable for students who might have otherwise not considered getting a bachelor’s degree. In the past three years, Wingate has signed agreements with several local community colleges, including South Piedmont in Union and Anson counties and Central Piedmont in Mecklenburg, that allow their graduates to attend Wingate for $2,500 a year or less in tuition costs (see p. 11).

Initiatives such as the First-Gen Bulldog Program, which provides special programming and mentorship to help first-generation students acclimate to college life, are helping those college newbies not only stay in school but thrive. Students in the first cohort of the program (those who entered in the fall of 2021) outpaced all first-time freshmen in retention and GPA in their first year.

It all adds up to a more diverse student body and, overall, increased opportunities for the most marginalized in society.

While an undergrad at Wingate, Brown chanced upon a flyer for a new program, a World Hunger Seminar, so he signed up. During the seminar, he hit it off with the campus minister, Jim McCoy, who invited him to hang around and start the United Campus Assistance Network, or UCAN – the start of Brown’s career at Wingate.

“I know from experience the power that higher education has to shape and mold society,” Brown says. “And I’m living proof that it can change lives.”

In this issue, read about other Wingate graduates who have come from humble beginnings and gone on to do exceptional things.