UNC board looks at new pathways to diplomas

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 10, 2012 

— North Carolina’s public university leaders are looking at different ways of delivering education to pump up productivity at a time of constrained resources.

On Wednesday, the UNC Board of Governors got a rundown of what other states are doing from a higher education strategy consultant who offered ideas from Arizona, Texas, New York, Georgia and other places. Among the approaches: online-only degrees, streamlined degree programs, and alternative pathways for nontraditional students to earn diplomas.

The board hasn’t committed to any of these ideas yet. A UNC committee composed of higher education, business and government leaders is working on a five-year strategy for the university system during the next few months. The group is looking at how to increase the percentage of college graduates in North Carolina’s population.

Kristin Conklin of HCM Strategists in Washington suggested that North Carolina’s universities should offer students more efficient paths to degrees.

For example, she said, Southern New Hampshire University, a nonprofit school, offers online degrees or combination degrees with face-to-face and online instruction. It has created three-year degree programs not by cramming more credits into a compressed period, but by redesigning degrees based on what is needed to build competency in students. The attraction for families: It saves students 25 percent on tuition.

James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, said he has been impressed with some of the well-reasoned risk takers in education, such as Rio Salado College, a community college in Arizona that specializes in online education.

“We’re a little too hung up on being traditional in the UNC system,” Anderson said. “We’ve got to catch up with these other engines.”

The online approach does not mean education is all about technology. Employers increasingly say they want liberal arts graduates who are critical thinkers, communicators and team builders who are adept with analysis. Online is merely the mechanism to deliver education.

Hannah Gage, a member and former chairwoman of the Board of Governors, said UNC campuses have great online offerings but they are scattered. The system put them all on a one-stop website, but without specific degree-granting power, UNC Online is confusing to students and difficult to navigate. “You’ve got to free it up and give it the authority,” she said.

Some states do a better job of having “2 + 2” programs or “3 + 1” programs – established paths for students who start at a community college and move to a university to finish their degrees. In the next year, the UNC system is redesigning its agreement with the state’s community college system so that students will be better able to take the required courses that will transfer easily from one campus to the next.

Re-enrolling students

Another way to create more degree holders is to recruit adults who attended college but did not finish, and get them re-enrolled, Conklin said. That’s what Kentucky is doing.

Finally, Conklin said, the state must improve its college dropout rate, which is much higher than the high school dropout rate. Georgia has a “Complete College” plan that established graduation goals linked to the local economy.

“You really need to embrace the moral imperative to graduate the students you admit,” she said.

In the UNC system, 59.1 percent of students graduate within six years. Several chancellors, including N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson, discussed their own strategies to change the way they do education.

Since 2000, NCSU has been in fast-growing mode – with the undergraduate population up 30 percent, the graduate student population up 68 percent, but tenure track faculty up only 2 percent, Woodson said.

“This is not a sustainable model for excellence,” he said.

Helping students succeed

Unbridled growth wasn’t serving students well, he said. Now, the university is growing in specific areas, and the focus is on student success so students can finish their degrees.

That includes assisting students, for example, if they find out they don’t like engineering and want to change their majors. Advisers now use a “dashboard” model with a visual display to help students navigate their individual paths through a complex university.

“We really believe this is going to have a huge impact on long-term retention and graduation,” Woodson said.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service