CHAPEL HILL — A UNC system panel aims to set a goal for college degree attainment by 2020 – that is, the percentage of North Carolinians aged 25 to 64 who hold at least a four-year degree.
The figure was 28.1 percent in 2010, slightly below the national average and well below Massachusetts, the most educated state at 42.4 percent.
In the months ahead, the attainment goal will be decided by the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions – a group that includes education, business and government leaders, as well as one representative each from the faculty, student body and staff.
But achieving the goal is likely be expensive at a time when the state’s resources are strained and families face climbing education costs. On Tuesday, a UNC system subcommittee looked at ways to boost degree-earners in ways that are more efficient than enrolling students right out of high school for four to six years.
One major focus is likely to be increasing the number of transfer students from the state’s community colleges. Already, those who transfer to UNC campuses make up a quarter of the system’s students. More than half of those are from community colleges, but students also transfer to UNC from other UNC campuses, from out-of-state colleges and from private colleges in North Carolina.
“We can produce more graduates more cheaply if they transfer to us from a community college,” said N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson.
Woodson pointed out that at the University of California-Berkeley, one of the nation’s top-ranked public universities, the graduating class is much bigger than the entering class. The higher education system there has long established successful routes from community colleges to the flagship campus.
“California was way ahead of the curve,” Woodson said.
Transfer students who have earned an associate’s degree at a community college graduate at higher rates at UNC campuses than do other types of transfer students. But there are things the UNC system can do to smooth the pathway and increase success for transfer students, including hiring more academic advisers and creating better technology for students’ academic planning, said Kate Henz, UNC’s senior director of academic policy and funding analyses.
Henz also cited a successful program at UNC-Charlotte, called “49er Finish,” which seeks out adults who previously dropped out of the university. The former students may have left school for financial or personal reasons, but were in good academic standing. UNC-Charlotte has worked to re-enroll them, ultimately graduating hundreds.
A scaled-up version of UNC-Charlotte’s program could lead to faster degree production. There are more than 1 million North Carolinians who have some college experience but no bachelor’s degree.
Henz said the system could target UNC campus dropouts who are three-quarters of the way to a degree with at least a “C” average and try to entice them to re-enroll. That’s 27,000 people; if 10 percent ultimately graduated, for example, that would yield 2,700 new degree holders.
“It’s just how aggressively you go after and get them,” Henz said.
Another way to speed up degree production is to encourage more students to take courses in summer school so they can finish earlier.
Fayetteville State University Chancellor James Anderson said his campus is putting more emphasis on summer school, directing financial aid awards to students who can accelerate their path to a diploma through summer classes.
Woodson said campus leaders would like to fill more classrooms in the summer to make efficient use of space, but there is no state subsidy for summer school. Tuition has to cover the full cost, and at a higher rate, summer classes are not attractive to students. But, Woodson asked, why not discount summer tuition as an incentive for students to graduate sooner?
“It’s a blue light special,” he joked.