From increasing economic mobility, to ensuring accountability, to advancing the public good, the UNC System is hard at work fulfilling its historic mission to this state. That was the message President Margaret Spellings delivered as the State of the University Tour crossed the state.

“North Carolina has built, without question, one of the finest university systems in the nation,” said President Spellings. “And it’s getting better every day.”

“Pleased but not satisfied,” was the tour’s refrain, as President Spellings recapped a host of initiatives and priorities under way and soon to launch this year. All were in pursuit of the bold goals outlined in the Strategic Plan the UNC Board of Governors unanimously approved just a year and a half prior.

Among those initiatives is a study group to make the state’s financial aid system more effective, more efficient, and more accessible to all students.

"North Carolina has built, without question, one of the finest university systems in the nation..."

“Our nation’s most important pathway to opportunity must become less of a high-stakes gamble for our most vulnerable students” said President Spellings. “And financial aid is the most effective tool we have.”

The study group, which launched in August in partnership with the North Carolina Community College System, will be driven by experts across the state, including two members of the UNC Board of Governors, Bob Rucho and Darrell Allison.

While financial aid is one of the best ways to increase student access, it must be paired with a focus on controlling college costs overall. Throughout the tour, Spellings spoke of the work the UNC Board of Governors and the state legislature to maintain our state’s historic lead on affordability.

“North Carolina remains a national leader on college costs,” said President Spellings. “[But] I often say that while our relative affordability is a good thing, students aren’t comparing our price tag to a carefully selected group of our peers. They’re comparing us to their savings accounts and paychecks, neither of which have kept up with the tuition hikes.”

To combat that rising cost of tuition, the UNC Board of Governors, along with the North Carolina General Assembly, has taken bold steps to put a lid on tuition. Together, they have frozen tuition for students during four years of enrollment, capped tuition increases at the rate of household income growth, and for the second time in five years, ensured there were no tuition increases for North Carolina undergraduates at any public university.

Most impressively, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a nationally recognized new initiative, NC Promise, which will drop tuition to just $500 a semester for in-state students at three institutions: Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University.

"[This] extraordinary, $51 million commitment by the legislature means students from every household can see a top-notch education as within their financial grasp..."

“This extraordinary, $51 million commitment by the legislature means students from every household can see a top-notch education as within their financial grasp,” said President Spellings. “NC Promise is North Carolina’s bold opening salvo to the current debate on college affordability, and I am excited to see the growth and opportunity it unleashes.”

The tour also highlighted the need for the UNC System to adapt to serve a student body that is far more diverse in background than in decades past.  

“We must broaden options because the students we serve today are far more diverse than those we served a quarter-century ago, said President Spellings throughout the tour. “Any vision that’s overly focused on that 18-year-old coming straight from high school won’t cut it anymore.”

That’s the goal of a special committee on Military and Veterans Affairs launched by the Board of Governors and chaired by Judge Bill Webb, which is focused on improving how the System serves that important population.

It’s also the aim of myFutureNC, a statewide commission led by the UNC System in partnership with the Department of Public Instruction, the Community College System, and leaders from business, government, and philanthropic and faith-based communities. Together, the commission is setting a statewide attainment goal for how many North Carolinians – of all backgrounds and ages – will need some form of education beyond high school in order to thrive in a changing economy.

Spellings also stressed the need to hold ourselves accountable for how we serve our students and the state.

“Nationally, we’re seeing a deeply discouraging retreat on shared standards and accountability,” said President Spellings. “But I’m proud that North Carolina is charting a different course, pulling back the curtain and letting measurable results guide our actions and tell our story.”

"... North Carolina is charting a different course, pulling back the curtain and letting measurable results guide our actions and tell our story..."

That different course is apparent in the unprecedented performance agreements signed by each institution of the UNC System’s 17 institutions. These agreements, commit each institution to measurable goals and targets around the Strategic Plan’s core priorities, including increasing graduation rates, decreasing achievement gaps, and ensuring access for rural and low-income students.

Tracking some metrics, however, is more elusive.

As President Spellings noted, “Our campuses bring together people from different backgrounds to gather in the same place, debate the same books, and navigate the same social life. A college education remains one of the most integrated and intellectually demanding experiences in American life.”

One of the System’s most important responsibilities, Spellings emphasized, is to ensure that this ideal remains in place by preserving the “civic fabric of a community” and standing behind “the core values of free expression, intellectual diversity, and patient engagement with new ideas.”

Extending opportunity to more North Carolinians through increased student access and success. Holding ourselves accountable for big goals that advance our core mission. Fulfilling our foundational role in advancing the public good.

It’s clear that our state’s system of public higher education has much to build on and accomplish. But as the State of the University Tour made clear, the UNC System is ready to tackle the job ahead.

 

Originally published 7/25/18

Thursday, October 25, 2018

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