CHAPEL HILL — The UNC system aims to churn out more graduates, prod campuses to be more efficient, and spend money on research areas that may be an economic boon to North Carolina, under a five-year plan to be adopted Friday.
The UNC Board of Governors is expected to vote for the strategic plan and to ask the state legislature to spend an additional $910 million now through 2018 to implement it.
One of the main goals is to boost the percentage of adults in North Carolina with four-year degrees from 29 percent to 32 percent. That will be done through a combination of improving graduation rates, increasing community college transfers, and recruiting as students veterans, active military and those with some college credit but no degree.
The plan is meant to respond to forces that are altering higher education in the United States, including strained budgets, demands for accountability, changes in the student population, and technology that can extend knowledge to people in new ways.
“The inevitable conclusion is that we must do business differently,” UNC President Tom Ross said. “We need more education in our state, we need more educated people in our state, and we need a talent pool available for tomorrow’s employers as well as today’s.”
On Thursday, board members reviewed a final draft of the plan and raised questions about the failure to focus on important areas, including engineering, agriculture and academic freedom. Some suggested that spending on the new research areas, including a field called pharmacoengineering, should not be placed ahead of planned campus initiatives that have been on hold during the recession era.
“Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in our state, and we haven’t addressed that in this strategic plan,” said Frank Grainger, a board member from Cary.
Ross responded that the plan is not meant to stress areas in which the university system already excels, but to think differently about how education is delivered and what emerging areas are ripe for development.
“The world in which we live is changing rapidly and profoundly,” he said. “And I believe that our plan provides a pathway for our university to be responsive to that change.”
The plan emphasizes online instruction, more standardized benchmarks for learning, and measuring that learning through student testing.
Those elements have drawn criticism from professors, who have said the UNC strategy infringes on the faculty’s role to make decisions about curriculum and assessment of learning. Fourteen faculty governing bodies from across the state have echoed those concerns with resolutions in recent days.
Ross acknowledged that the plan doesn’t appeal to everyone, but said, “in general, I think that’s a sign of success.” Change will be difficult but necessary, he said.
The plan also offers a roadmap for how the system can operate more efficiently. Campuses will have to collaborate more on purchasing and other business functions, including auditing. There will be systemwide guidelines on instructional productivity, and financial incentives to spur campuses to find cost savings.
Even with all the talk of efficiency, the plan will cost money. It calls for an additional $267 million in annual spending by the fifth year – or $200 million after campus savings are taken into account. The system received $2.5 billion from the state in the last fiscal year.
Over a five-year period, the new spending requests of the state legislature will total $910 million for UNC. But Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive and UNC board member who led the data analysis, said about 39 percent of that will be offset by efficiencies and cost avoidance by the changes in the plan.
And the payoff promises to be worth it, Eshelman said. By pumping out more graduates, the ultimate return on investment will be an estimated $100 million per year, and $3 billion in lifetime earnings of the additional graduates.
The research spending could result in an added 33,000 related jobs for North Carolina by 2028, Eshelman said.
“It strikes me that this looks like a pretty solid investment for the state of North Carolina,” he said.
A ‘living document’
UNC leaders made clear that the strategic plan is a “living document” that will be revised and tweaked as implementation begins. If the legislature does not fund the initiatives, then the goals would have to be revised.
The vote Friday will begin a new chapter for UNC, which board member Charles Mercer called “the taproot of the state” for more than 200 years.
Ross said the fundamental goal is to make a UNC education “more relevant, flexible, accessible and effective.”
“The strategies in this plan will help North Carolina become more competitive both nationally and internationally by positioning our state to win the war for top talent,” he said.