President Spellings meets  KIPP College Prep Students during her recent visit to UNC-CH

My introduction to UNC-Chapel Hill began, appropriately enough, with a crowd of KIPP College Prep students at the Old Well. It wasn’t planned; I was there to see one of the most recognizable college landmarks in the world, and they were there to imagine future lives on a world-class university campus. Most of the KIPP students were low-income, from a region of North Carolina where not enough young people have the chance to attend college.

But they can imagine a future at UNC-Chapel Hill — the University of the People — because of the commitment Carolina has made to keeping a world-class education affordable for all. That core tenet of the public university was echoed time and again during my visit to campus, in discussions about strong financial aid, about the work of the Carolina College Advising Corps in reaching out to underrepresented students, and in stories from students and faculty.

I met Carolina Covenant Scholars who will be able to graduate from UNC without student debt, thanks to the University’s no-loans aid program for low-income students. I heard from transfer students who came to UNC through the innovative C-STEP initiative, which offers guaranteed admission to high performers from a selection of North Carolina Community Colleges. And I spoke with veterans working on their degrees through UNC CORE, a program specifically designed for military students.

As history professor Lloyd Kramer told me, Carolina is determined to keep the “public” in public higher education, welcoming students from all backgrounds and focusing on research and service for the citizens of the state. Along the way, the country’s oldest public university has made some remarkable contributions to the world.

I met students who have served in the military and are now preparing to serve as physician assistants in rural areas. I spoke to an undergraduate whose class project may help stem the loss of honeybees across the United States. And I shook hands with not one, but two Nobel laureates on campus, living proof that some of the world’s most impressive work happens behind the old stone walls of Chapel Hill.

Building a research university is a long game, another professor told me over lunch. It took Carolina two centuries to grow into the powerhouse that it is today. It’s only been possible because far-sighted policymakers made the decision — repeatedly, even in times of hardship — to keep faith in education.

Claudia Falcon, a researcher in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Joint Mathematics and Marine Sciences Fluids Lab, told me that her work had no obvious application when she began. Studying patterns of marine particles wasn’t immediately useful — until the BP oil spill, when that basic research became the groundwork for urgent studies and environmental response plans.

Similarly, no one was sure what students would do with new 3D-printers installed in makerspaces and libraries across campus, freely available to all. But within months, a group of undergraduates figured out how to print prosthetic hands so effectively and inexpensively that they’re giving them away to disabled kids. Making those resources available, and unleashing the creativity of students and faculty, can change lives in profound ways.

A few years ago, North Carolina lawmakers invested in UNC’s Research Opportunities Initiative, an effort to boost promising innovations across the University system. It was a vote of confidence in what smart people can accomplish when you give them the right resources, and I’m happy to report that it’s paying off. I heard about the remarkable work of Falcon Therapeutics, a UNC-Chapel Hill spinoff that is finding new ways to target cancer treatment in a way that doesn’t harm healthy cells. They’re building off of technology supported through ROI funding, a small indication of the impact basic science can have.

The long game applies to all aspects of a top-tier institution. Mike Smith in the School of Government talked about the decades-long relationship of trust developed between the school’s experts and North Carolina’s state and local officials. Judges, county commissioners, mayors and city manager from Murphy to Manteo rely on advice from UNC faculty every week, a unique resource to improve government at all levels.

And UNC’s Medical School has grown in response to the state’s changing health needs, shifting North Carolina over the past century from one of the unhealthiest states in the country to one of the world’s leaders in medical research and public health outreach.

These are remarkable stories of patient work and far-sighted investment. North Carolina did it first, and we have to keep doing it best.

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