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Doing Better: NC has become a laboratory for higher education reforms

On the surface, at least, it's back to business as usual for colleges and universities across North Carolina as the spring semester gets underway.

At some of our state's institutions, however, the New Year promises to be anything but typical - a testing ground for bold reforms that could help re-shape the face of higher education nationally.

Around the country, it's a tumultuous time right now for academia. Since the late 1980s, tuition and fees for four-year degrees have ballooned by more than 400 percent on average - four times the rate of inflation. Just 60 percent of students at public universities graduate in six years - and many wind up tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Students pursuing medical, law, business and graduate degrees can easily accrue six-figure debts and struggle to find jobs that pay well enough to make loan payments.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been among the most prominent voices calling for major changes in how our nation's higher education system operates. Exactly how to make those changes can be controversial politically, but it's hard to disagree with what he identifies as the three major challenges facing the sector: accountability, attainment, and cost.

Degree initiatives

Colleges have traditionally faced little accountability for whether their students graduate on time and enter the workforce prepared to succeed. Law school students, for example, tend to borrow heavily and graduate into what is now a tight job market, too often without the practical training that law firms want. Noting these challenges, the American Bar Association's task force on the future of legal education called last year for sweeping changes to curriculum, pricing and overall value delivered to students.

Elon University School of Law in downtown Greensboro responded swiftly to the ABA's report with a series of groundbreaking moves. Beginning this fall, it will enable students to graduate in two-and-a-half years, as opposed to the traditional three, and engage them in full-time, faculty-directed residencies with law firms, courts and government agencies. A redesigned curriculum that combines rigorous academics with training in business skills and leadership puts the focus squarely on student achievement and long-term career success.

On the degree-attainment front, numerous initiatives are already under way across the state to help steer students successfully into and through college and to encourage adults to return to college for associate and bachelor's degrees. Wake Forest University has jumped to the leading edge of efforts to make advanced degrees more attainable. In October, it became perhaps the most prominent university in the U.S. to discontinue its full-time MBA program. Beginning this year, Wake Forest will instead accelerate its evening and weekend offerings for professionals who want to earn an MBA while working full time.

Prompted in part by a steady decline in enrollment in the university's traditional MBA program, Wake Forest's new approach clearly acknowledges a shift in the way students want to learn. It endeavors to make an advanced degree more accessible through a mix of online and face-to-face learning. In doing so, it builds on North Carolina's substantial history of nontraditional degree programs. East Carolina University was one of the first institutions in the nation to offer degrees entirely on the Internet. Today it provides more than 75 degrees and certificate programs online, in industries ranging from education and business to health care and technology.

Managing costs

Institutions across North Carolina are also winning widespread recognition for their efforts to deliver cost-effective educations. UNC-Chapel Hill ranked No. 10 in Forbes magazine's 2014 survey of the nation's best values in education; N.C. State also made the list at No. 25.

Private colleges have taken serious steps to help students manage costs as well. In 2013, Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte slashed its annual tuition 33 percent to $18,500 not long after William Peace University in Raleigh cut tuition by 8 percent. Davidson College, meanwhile, earned national attention by removing loans from the financial aid packages it offers students and replacing them with grants from the Davidson Trust.

These are all moves in the right direction, and, collectively, they position North Carolina as a leader in efforts to make higher education more accountable, accessible, and affordable. There are few things more crucial than that for fully unleashing our state's talent, and the opportunities for our colleges and universities to keep innovating in service of their students and larger communities are bounded only by their imaginations.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of "Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives." Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.