North Dakota is the land of opportunity, according to new survey.
Opportunity Nation, in partnership with Measure of America, ranked North Dakota second in the nation in a state-by-state survey designed to assess the opportunities that allow individuals to climb the economic ladder of success.
"The priority that North Dakota's citizens and leaders are placing on the idea of opportunity is a shining example that deserves to be held up as best practices for other states to emulate," said Mark Edwards, executive director of the Opportunity Nation Campaign. "The state's score of 61 percent falls behind only one other state in the country, Vermont, who scored a 64.29. While extremely commendable, opportunity scores are calculated on a scale of zero to 100, so there's still plenty of room for improvement for the state to make in the years ahead."
Jill Schramm/MDN • Brandon Broderson, left, and Ben Haaland, right, make Christmas cards during a preschool activity at Escuela in Minot Nov. 16. An organization that scored North Dakota high in its Opportunity Index listed increased preschool enrollment as an area where the state can improve for future opportunities.
Opportunity Nation describes itself as a campaign to promote opportunity, social mobility, and access to the American Dream. It consists of a coalition of nearly 200 businesses, non-profits, educational institutions and military organizations.
Its index used more than a dozen types of publicly available data to rank every state and assign almost every county an Opportunity Score. The data include such items as unemployment rate, number of on-time high school graduates, access to primary care providers and rate of violent crime.
The index included areas of opportunity that societies can influence, Edwards said. People can't change their racial or ethnic heritage or parental education level, which can influence their opportunities. Through hard work and talent, they may be able to create opportunities for themselves, but the 16 indicators in the study reflect areas of opportunity for which public policy can enhance opportunities for entire communities, he said.
Opportunity Index Scores
EconomyEducationCommunity Health & Civic Life
Source: Opportunity Nation Campaign. (Index tops at 100)
The numbers of young adults aged 16 to 24 years old who are not connected to school or work is the indicator that most strongly determines a state's opportunity score, Edwards said. North Dakota made considerable strides in this area since the first year of the survey in 2011. The state lowered the percentage of youth not in school and not working from 9 percent in 2011 to 7.3 percent in 2012, less than half the national average of 14.7 percent.
"This improvement is one of the leading reasons why North Dakota claimed the No. 2 position this year," Edwards said.
The September 2011 jobs report for North Dakota showed 22,369 open jobs, which was 30 percent higher than a year earlier. Active resumes with Job Service North Dakota was 13,705.
That demand for workers creates more opportunities for youth, said Michael Ziesch, labor market analyst for Job Service North Dakota.
"Businesses are certainly looking for labor. For job seekers, that certainly gives them a leg up. In other parts of the United States, young workers are competing with older workers delaying retirement.," Ziesch said. Given North Dakota's worker shortage, he added, "A young worker might even get an opportunity that normally a company wouldn't consider."
State statistics show 62,345 employees between the ages of 14 and 24. They earn an average monthly wage across all industry sectors of $618 a month. The largest share, 26 percent, work in retail, food service or accommodations, where job openings are abundant and monthly wages range from $550 for teens to $1,455 for 22- to 24-year olds. However, jobs in other fields can pay more. A 22- to 24-year-old can earn an average $6,316 a month in mining.
The survey measured data in three dimensions: economy, education and community and civic life. North Dakota scored above the national average in all three areas.
Its economic score of 65.7 exceeded the national score of 49.1, reflecting lower unemployment and poverty. The state also has more banking institutions per capita and fewer people are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The percentage of households with high-speed Internet and the ratio of higher income households to lower income households were similar at the state and national levels.
North Dakota's educational score of 52.8 compared to 47.2 nationally, reflecting the state's high percentage of students who graduate high school in four years.
The state's community score of 65.5 exceed the national score of 53.7. North Dakotans were somewhat more likely to volunteer but were similar to the national average in their inclination to join organizations. But the crime rate and percentage of young people in school or in jobs were much better than the national average.
The survey also graded larger counties. In the Minot area, Bottineau County led the region, scoring a B-plus while Mountrail and Williams both scored a B. McKenzie County, with an exceptional economic score of 73.8, earned a B-minus due to lower scores in the other categories. Ward, Pierce, McHenry and McLean all scored a B-minus. The state's larger counties of Cass, Burleigh and Grand Forks all scored a B. Low numbers of primary-care providers or grocery stores per capita affected scores of some smaller counties.
"North Dakotans enjoy many advantages that those living in other states do not, most notably an exceptionally low unemployment rate of 3.1 percent, more than half the national unemployment rate," Edwards said. "However, one key area where the state could improve is with regards to the percentage of children in preschool. Studies show that children who participate in preschool programs have stronger competencies for reading and math skills than those that do not."
He noted only 34 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in North Dakota are enrolled in a preschool program, far below the national average of 48.3 percent. Ward County was at 40 percent.
Tara Bitz, assistant director of Title I with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, said the state is working to improve in that area.
The 2011 Legislature approved two grant programs to assist with preschool education, she said. School districts can apply for up to $5,000 in environmental grants that can be used for certain classroom remodeling. They also can apply for up to $1,200 scholarships for teachers to become certified in early childhood education. The greatest use of that grant has been Head Start, where certification is a requirement for teachers.
More school districts have been organizing preschool programs. That's largely due to the influence those programs have on the ability of students to do well as they continue in school, Bitz said.
"They are seeing the academic achievement increase," she said, adding that considerable research also supports the benefits of preschool.
There have been a number of ways in which schools have approached preschool, Bitz said. Some have used their federal Title I funds to initiate programs. Others have found other community or parental funding. Programs cannot charge tuition if federal funds are involved.
The Department of Public Instruction also makes available a 10-week Gearing Up for Kindergarten program that districts can provide to parents and their preschoolers. The Bismarck Public School System uses a Jumpstart program that runs for two weeks before the school session begins.
Some child-care facilities also offer preschools. The Department of Public Instruction has attempted to capture that data but doesn't have a complete picture at this time, Bitz said. To qualify as a preschool, a program must have a licensed teacher and use a formal curriculum.
North Dakota's overall opportunity score was enough to move the state up from fourth place in 2011. The state's overall score increased by two points, and scores in each of the three dimensions also increased, including a six-point jump in the community score.
Opportunity Nation found that more states and counties showed improvement than slid backwards between 2011 and 2012. It also found that income is not the leading factor in determining overall opportunity. Vermont ranks 21st and North Dakota 24th in average income per capita.
Opportunity Nation plans to produce the index annually, giving leaders a way to track progress and measure the effectiveness of their efforts. The index is based on the latest available public data provided by government and non-governmental sources. For the 2012 Index, the most recently available data for the majority of indicators came from June 2012, although for some indicators data is currently only available from 2010.