A steady stream of visitors and students visit the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus on Friday, October 13, 2017. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com
A steady stream of visitors and students visit the Old Well on the University of North Carolina campus on Friday, October 13, 2017. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Opinion

UNC’s plan seeks to close the gap between the ‘two North Carolinas’

By Margaret Spellings

December 16, 2017 11:00 AM

We can’t have two North Carolinas. We can’t have a state where the ZIP code you’re born in dictates your future.

We can’t have a state where 40 percent of our new jobs are created in just two counties, Mecklenburg and Wake, which make up just 20 percent of our population. A state where even these growing cities are starkly divided, with economic mobility rates that rank among the worst in the nation.

Rural North Carolina risks being left behind, just as low-income and minority families in our cities risk being left behind. To build an economy where every family can thrive, we must be aggressive and direct in confronting these disparities.

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UNC system President Margaret Spellings
Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

As longtime engines of economic growth and civic progress, our state’s public universities are retooling to do just that. Since our nation’s founding, North Carolina’s public universities have delivered a transformational education for some. Today, we must do the same for many, many more in a way that is more convenient, accessible and affordable for all.

This is the challenge at the heart of the University of North Carolina system’s Strategic Plan, entitled Higher Expectations. Across the state, from Asheville, to Chapel Hill, to Elizabeth City, too many talented rural, low-income and first-generation students see college as out of reach, unaffordable or irrelevant to their future and that must change.

The UNC system’s plan calls for enrolling and graduating more students from low-income families and rural counties, raising graduation rates and closing achievement gaps, and producing more credentials in fields like teaching and health care that are critical to our state’s economy and well-being. All while building on UNC’s historic success at keeping costs low and student debt even lower.

Our Strategic Plan has the power to transform this state, but a plan is only as good as what it drives us to accomplish.

That’s why this fall, I signed performance agreements with the chancellors at all 16 of our universities. Each agreement was developed in concert with campus leaders, tailored to each institution’s unique mission and aspirations, and centered on nine measurable and ambitious goals.

The performance agreements outline aggressive but realistic targets, like a 31 percent increase in low-income graduates at North Carolina A&T and a 17 percent increase in rural graduates at Western Carolina University by 2022.

Simply put, these targets will mean more students from every background will graduate with the skills to succeed in a changing economy and drive our state forward.

At the same time, we must not only ensure all qualified students can benefit from their state’s public higher education system, but also that those benefits extend to the communities they call home.

Efforts to do so and meet our Strategic Plan’s goals are already underway. At UNC Pembroke, a state-of-the-art nursing program is training graduates who stay in Southeast North Carolina to tackle the area’s profound rural health disparities.

Starting next year, the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program will provide scholarships to future teachers in return for a commitment to serve in North Carolina’s public schools, with added incentives to serve in low-performing schools that are most in need of high-quality teachers.

In the Triad, a new $34 million joint campus between UNC Greensboro and N.C. A&T is revitalizing downtown Greensboro and helping deliver high-quality healthcare throughout the area.

And led by programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State, the College Advising Corps is placing new graduates as advisers in underserved high schools to help students find their path to college, an effort that is boosting college enrollment rates at high schools in every corner of the state.

To truly close the divide that exists between the two North Carolinas, we must prioritize and grow efforts like these and harness the collective strengths of our universities.

Our system’s Strategic Plan and the unique institutional performance agreements signed this fall are an important step. Together, they mark the next chapter in North Carolina’s proud history as a leader in public higher education that is truly of and for the people.

Margaret Spellings is the president of the University of North Carolina system.