Earlier this month, I spent an afternoon at Graham High School in Alamance County, sitting in a classroom with Veronica Trujillo-Cuadrado and her students. As a recent graduate of UNC- Chapel Hill, Veronica could have taken her degree anywhere.
She chose to stay right here in North Carolina, signing up for Carolina College Advising Corps to help students in a low-wealth school district prepare for higher education. Her social media feeds are filled with images of high schoolers sharing their college dreams and thanking “Ms. T” for helping them along the path.
In the year since I came to North Carolina, I’ve met dedicated people like Veronica almost every day. Even as our state makes national headlines as a political battleground, the steady, vital work of public servants like her carries on.
There is plenty of legitimate disagreement in our politics, and plenty of real division in our public discourse. I’ve had some personal experience with this, from protests outside my office to occasional shouts of dissent in the grocery store parking lot. Being a university president is an exciting job.
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But when it comes to the state’s largest and most important public responsibility — educating our citizens well — the beliefs that have always guided us are still intact, and still widely shared. Everywhere I travel in North Carolina—from Cullowhee to Elizabeth City, from the Old Well to Jones Street—meeting with people from all walks of life and both ends of the political spectrum, I see the universal faith in education and opportunity that drew me to this state.
Here in the birthplace of public higher education, there’s still a clear belief that talent and hard work should be the only criteria for success. We all agree that a child’s future shouldn’t be dictated by geography, by race, or by family income. The ideal of equal opportunity has been a cornerstone of the American Dream for generations, and North Carolinians have stayed true to that goal.
So I’m not at all surprised that in the year since I took office, even as many elections were decided by razor-thin margins, voters overwhelmingly approved a bond that will invest hundreds of millions in our public universities. I’m also not surprised that state lawmakers have set aside new funding to dramatically lower tuition at several universities, and maintained some of the strongest higher education investments of any state in the country. And I’m not surprised that our Board of Governors voted unanimously for a new Strategic Plan that will expand access to higher education and raise our expectations for North Carolina and its students.
The fundamental challenges we face are not partisan. Today, a child born in poverty in North Carolina is likely to stay there into adulthood. Fewer than a third of low-income children in our state find a path to middle-class prosperity, which ranks North Carolina among the toughest places in the country for economic mobility.
Our public universities have a role in changing that. Many regions of the state are thriving, and we can help extend that growth to more communities. Right now, a student attending a rural high school is less likely to reach for college than a student in a wealthier suburban school. Minority students are less likely to attend college, even when their grades and test scores qualify them for admission.
Addressing those disparities is a universal good. Opportunity is not a zero-sum game — we all benefit when more students have the chance to succeed in a growing economy, and we all gain from a more educated citizenry that better reflects the changing face of our state.
One of the students I met at Graham High hopes to become a pediatric nurse. Who knows how many lives she may touch, how many of her fellow North Carolinians she may help, if we can offer her a path to that goal?
Likewise for Veronica, the recently graduated college advisor, who has already opened doors for hundreds of students and families. Her commitment to North Carolina is proof of what our state founders understood so well — that the impact of education echoes across generations, enriching us all.
I expect plenty of disagreements in the years ahead, but not about that. The Old North State still has its North Star — the first and finest public university in the country.
Margaret Spellings in the President of the University of North Carolina.