President Spellings visits UNCG's SELF Design Studio at the School of Education

Driving in the Right Direction

There were plenty of highlights during my daylong visit to UNC Greensboro. The Weatherspoon Art Museum is an absolute treasure, the lunchtime musical performances were marvelous, and you really haven’t experienced the glory of campus golf-carting until you’ve taken a spin with Chancellor Frank Gilliam on the UNCG Warrior Whip.

But what I’ll remember most from UNC Greensboro is their success at tackling one of the core missions of modern higher education — welcoming low-income, first-generation college students and helping them find a path to graduation. Forty-four percent of UNCG students are eligible for Pell Grants, and those students have a six-year graduation rate that is just a few points shy of the university’s overall average. The ability to serve students who come from more challenging backgrounds is crucial at a time when our state’s population is changing and our economic needs are evolving. Long-range prosperity means educating more North Carolinians, especially those who have historically faced too many obstacles to higher education.

The folks at UNCG understand that broader access begins long before a student reaches campus. During an open and thoughtful discussion with faculty, staff, and students, I heard about the university’s research in early childhood development and outreach to elementary school students. The path to college can take shape at an impossibly early age, when children are first forming their sense of the world and their personal ambitions. And UNCG researchers are leading the way with long-range studies and new interventions to help overcome early barriers. It’s a big challenge that pays even bigger dividends down the road, and UNCG is working on programs like Middle College, which brings students onto campus starting in 9th grade to help shape a college-going future.

Of course, getting students to campus is only part of the battle. UNCG’s success with low-income students also comes from smart use of data analytics and early intervention. The campus has a Students First Office that uses a number of data points to identify at-risk students early in their college careers and target extra help and counseling where it’s most needed. They know from experience, for instance, that undecided majors are more likely to struggle academically, since they don’t yet have a clear sense of where they’re going or close relationships within a particular discipline. So undecided majors get some extra attention from the academic advising office until they settle into a course of study. That kind of thoughtful, data-driven approach to student success is exactly what we need in North Carolina.

UNCG professors are also innovating in the classroom, coming up with new models of teaching that get students out into the community. Last year, the Interior Architecture Department helped lead a symposium on tiny house design, with a focus on affordable housing solutions for the homeless. The Center for Community-Engaged Design helped get civic leaders involved, demonstrating the ways student creativity can help address pressing community problems.

Over at the Bryan School of Business, students are tackling worldwide challenges in the business community. The award-winning X-Culture project assigns student teams to study a real-world problem at a company somewhere across the world and invent a solution before the end of the semester. It can be anything from new store locations to more durable engine design, and novel proposals often land students job offers. The Export Odyssey course takes a similar approach to global trade, asking students to find a new export market for a particular North Carolina product. They don’t just write a paper or give a presentation — they work to get the real product into a new market, literally growing North Carolina’s economy as part of their classwork.

Small wonder that UNC Greensboro has grown into a vital and vibrant part of the Triad community, and a draw for students across the state. A place that began as a women’s college is now everyone’s university, with a student body as diverse and ambitious as North Carolina itself. With Chancellor Gilliam at the wheel, I have high confidence in the road ahead.

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