UNC wants to boost diploma earners

Need for educated workforce touted

jstancill@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2012 

— A UNC system strategy committee wants to lift the share of North Carolina residents who have at least a four-year college degree by 2018.

The group began to discuss a goal of raising the state’s degree attainment rate — defined as adults age 25 to 64 with at least a four-year college diploma — from 28 percent to 32 percent in the next five years.

The target is preliminary, and UNC officials are still crunching the numbers to see what it would cost and how it could be accomplished. That work will continue during the next few months, and the UNC Board of Governors is expected to adopt a five-year strategic plan early next year.

In 2010, 28.1 percent of North Carolina’s adults had a four-year degree, according to census figures — below the national average of 29.9 percent. North Carolina’s college degree earners are projected to reach 31.9 percent of the population by 2025.

But UNC President Tom Ross proposed Wednesday that the 32 percent level could be reached seven years sooner, by 2018.

That would mean producing a total of 500,000 graduates over a five-year period. About 70,000 a year would be produced by all North Carolina universities under current conditions, for a total of 350,000. That leaves 150,000 additional degrees, some of which could come from people moving to North Carolina who already have college degrees.

The rest could be produced in a number of ways besides the traditional enrollment of high school graduates as freshmen at colleges and universities.

Ross listed a number of approaches, including increasing graduation rates at UNC campuses, boosting successful transfers of community college students to universities, enrolling members of the military and recruiting adults who have some college but no degree.

“We’re pretty confident that this combination of strategies would let us reach that 31 or 32 percent,” Ross said.

The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions and a related subcommittee have met for weeks to determine the level of college-educated citizens necessary for the workforce of the future. The data have been inconsistent and hard to come by, so it has been difficult to zero in on a goal.

Some projections show that the minimum workforce needs actually require a smaller percentage of college degree holders, but many committee members don’t trust that data. Changes in technology and the development of new industries cloud the picture, making it tricky to predict the types of jobs that could emerge.

“The data sets are awful,” said Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington businessman and UNC board member who has led a research subcommittee. “None of us are clairvoyant.”

Some committee members advocated a more ambitious target, under the theory that a highly educated workforce would attract industry and economic development to North Carolina.

Don Flow, a businessman and committee member, reminded the panel Wednesday that setting a minimum goal might actually shut qualified people out of a university education.

“What are we going to do if we have more students who would like to go to college than we have jobs for?” Flow asked. “Are we going to say that college attainment would not be a social good that we would open the door to for social mobility?”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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