UNC system wants to produce more graduates

jstancill@newsobserver.comJanuary 8, 2013 

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Graduates show support to attendees as N.C. State held their spring commencement at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. Saturday May 12, 2012

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com

  • Game-changing research A draft of UNC’s strategic plan suggests putting resources into seven areas of study that could have high impact on North Carolina’s economic future: • Pharmacoengineering: the science behind the development of materials to deliver drugs and diagnostics in humans. • Data science: the management and analysis of vast amounts of information, known as “big data.” • Advanced manufacturing: the integration of high tech equipment with manufacturing. • Energy • Defense and military • Culture and tourism • Applied public policy: outreach to local and state policymakers on important policy issues.
  • More information The top 10 most-educated states North Carolina ranked 26th in the country in bachelor’s or higher degree attainment, according to 2008 census figures. Here are the states with the highest degree attainment: Massachusetts Colorado Connecticut Maryland New Jersey Virginia New Hampshire Vermont New York Minnesota

The UNC system aims to make North Carolina among the 10 “most educated” states – with a larger share of the population with four-year diplomas – by 2025, according to a draft report.

The five-year strategy for the system calls for lifting the state’s proportion of degree holders from 29.5 percent today to 32.2 percent in 2018. Ultimately, the plan calls for 36.2 percent of North Carolina adults to have at least a four-year degree by 2025.

The proposed bump in degree earners may sound modest, but it would mean that higher-education institutions would have to turn out about 93,000 additional diplomas by 2025.

The projected goals will be discussed this week by the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions and the UNC Board of Governors, which will eventually vote on the plan. The effort has drawn criticism from some faculty and students who say they haven’t had enough representation on an advisory committee made up mostly of higher education, corporate and government leaders.

It’s unclear how much the initiative would cost; the final report will contain details about finances. And though it sounds expensive, the UNC system plans to accomplish the goal in a variety of methods that could be cheaper than providing a four- or five-year education to the typical high school graduate.

Ideas include improving graduation rates of students, enrolling more community college transfers, serving more military veterans who have GI benefits, and recruiting some of the estimated 1.5 million North Carolinians who have some college credit but no degree. The system also wants to work with public schools to increase the college readiness of an increasingly diverse and economically challenged pipeline of students.

Peter Hans, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, said the final report also will have plans about efficiencies the university hopes to achieve.

“For me, this strategic plan is about really setting priorities, providing additional value and expecting results,” he said in an email. “We should aspire to both a higher number of graduates and a better return on the taxpayers’ investment. Times are tight, and the university must be creative.”

The report cautions about too aggressive a push, which some other states have adopted. Oregon, for example, has a goal of reaching 40 percent of adults with a college degree by 2020.

“The (UNC) system should not grossly overshoot, however, thereby running up costs and saddling students with debt, only to find that they are unemployed or under-employed,” the draft report said.

Improved quality, relevance

The strategy is not just about pumping out more degrees. It also focuses on improving relevance and quality of education, so graduates have the skills they need to be successful in tomorrow’s careers. And it promises to guarantee students minimum competency in general education courses so that students can transfer easily among campuses.

Accountability is also part of the plan so that students can know before they enroll what their job prospects could be based on published data from each university, even down to specific majors on specific campuses. With that is likely to come a greater emphasis on testing students to measure how well campuses are doing. In the fall, the report proposes a pilot program on five campuses to give students the College Learning Assessment, a standardized test used nationally.

The emphasis on testing is a concern to David Ayers, associate professor of higher education at UNC Greensboro.

“They want to push the No Child Left Behind high stakes testing on higher education,” said Ayers, president of the N.C. Conference of the American Association of University Professors. “The problems our graduates will face are not going to be simple multiple choice. They’re going to be much more complex.”

UNCG has been using a standardized test for some time, and it recruits students to take it by offering free pizza. But the students don’t have a personal stake in the test, Ayers said, so it’s hard to know whether the results are even valid.

“They need to be college students, not test takers,” Ayers said.

He said faculty will like the fact that the report stresses that the state’s higher education system is an investment in North Carolina’s future. But professors are likely to be divided about the emphasis on online education in the strategy.

Online flexibility

Online learning is expected to play a greater role at the state’s public campuses, which already offer 313 online degree and certificate programs. The report proposes establishing partnerships with companies that host large open online courses and eliminating extra charges for residential students who also want to take an online course.

It recommends developing an online flexible liberal studies degree with courses from various campuses and 10 online courses as an alternative to high-demand lecture courses that often fill quickly and slow down students’ progress.

But online education isn’t necessarily cheap, and it would require training for faculty, money to design courses and testing procedures to guard against cheating.

The report also includes goals for better advising to keep students on track and proposals to increase teachers and health care professionals in the state.

Though the focus is on turning out more undergraduate degree earners, the strategy cites goals aimed at the state’s capacity for innovation. It recommends targeted spending to develop expertise in seven “game changing” fields, including defense, advanced manufacturing, tourism, “big data,” public policy, energy and pharmacoengineering, which involves the use of new technology in the development and delivery of drugs in humans.

The report recommends hiring 24 “rainmaker” faculty members – star researchers who can bring in research grants in certain areas in which the universities aim to excel.

“UNC cannot be good at everything,” the report said, “but there are some areas where, working in partnership with each other and with businesses, the university can ‘move the needle,’ making new discoveries and helping to create new jobs and opportunities. Investments must have a high probability of yielding game-changing results and return on investment.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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