A college degree remains the best way for low-income students to rise from poverty, despite opinions to the contrary, said UNC President Margaret Spellings.

The former George W. Bush education secretary was one of several speakers featured during an elite higher education conference Oct. 30 in Austin, Texas.

Spellings joined John King Jr., former secretary of education in the Obama administration, on a panel to discuss college access for minority and low-income students.

More financial aid should go to first-generation and underprivileged students, she said. In 2014, the UNC Board of Governors placed a cap on the amount of tuition revenue used for financial aid. Spellings wants to reverse that policy.

Minority students are most likely to be locked out of college classrooms. That’s a problem for everyone who worries about the future of the American economy, she said. Students are already on a tough path, and universities shouldn’t add more roadblocks.

Many citizens, particularly those in rural areas, believe an advanced degree isn’t worth the money. That’s a false assumption, said Spellings. Fifty years ago, college was optional. Those days are long gone, since 70 percent of jobs today require more than a high school degree.

Higher education is a popular target of criticism these days, especially due to a growing emphasis on career and technical education. The skills gap frequently pops up in discussion at the state legislature.

Industrial and manufacturing jobs, many of which require hands-on training or technical certification, have fallen by the wayside, some data shows. Over the next decade, a possible 3.4 million blue collar jobs will go unfilled.

The Trump administration is focused on expanding apprenticeship programs, which would provide hands-on experience in manufacturing and other labor-intensive industries.

In June, the president signed an executive order to double federal funding for apprenticeships.  

Technical and hands-on training is important — and can be a good choice for some — but shouldn’t replace a traditional college degree, Spellings told North Carolina business leaders in August.

Traditional universities and businesses should better collaborate to fill the skills gap, she told the Austin audience. Higher education is no longer just a personal choice. It’s a public responsibility.

“It’s in our own personal interest to make sure that we live in a world of opportunity, prosperity, and civic democracy. What could be more important than that?”