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Getting students through the UNC system to graduation is the goal of new effort

UNC system President Margaret Spellings.
UNC system President Margaret Spellings. cseward@newsobserver.com

UNC President Margaret Spellings announced a new innovation lab Monday, with the aim of improving student success on the path to graduation.

As part of her seventh stop on a statewide State of the University tour, Spellings said the Student Success Innovation Lab will fund and test initiatives to help students get through the university system. The project will be launched with $3 million from the ECMC Foundation and the John M. Belk Endowment.

The work began Friday with a gathering of faculty from across North Carolina, and the system will seek proposals from researchers and consultants on how to better teach and support students.

"We know it's not enough to get students into school; we must also provide the support and education that gets them to graduation," she said, "and the Student Success Innovation Lab is a big step forward in identifying and scaling what works."

One idea, for example, is offering students financial aid grants for summer school classes. Summer school is cheaper, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt said, and can propel students to graduate on time.

In 2017, the five-year graduation rate for UNC system students averaged 68.2 percent.

In the address at Cary software company SAS, Spellings discussed ongoing efforts to improve on the university's outcomes and its reach. Among them: a statewide review of financial aid policies and practices, a commission looking at North Carolina's total education pipeline from pre-K to the workforce, and "a full court press" on improving teacher training in UNC's education schools.

"We are getting stronger. But that's no cause for complacency," she said. "As I like to say, we're pleased but not satisfied."

There's a lot on the line, from the state's economy to the future of thousands who currently have little hope of upward mobility despite North Carolina's large network of universities and community colleges.

"Children born into poverty in the South have strikingly low odds of bettering their lives," Spellings said. "Too many of our rural communities are being left behind, despite a growing state economy. And even our cities, like Greensboro, Charlotte, Fayetteville and Raleigh, rank among the worst in the nation for economic mobility. The pie is growing but not everyone is getting a slice."

Spellings called this a moment of reinvention for higher education, which can change the "opportunity deficit." Nearly all North Carolinians will need some kind of education beyond high school, she said. A key is keeping costs down, she added, "because opportunity is meaningless if you can't afford it."

She cited the new NC Promise program, funded by a $51 million appropriation from the legislature, which will lower tuition at Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina, starting this fall. She described the legislative investment as more than double that of Tennessee's highly touted free community college deal.

Spellings also hit on the theme of a troubling national discourse and hot button free speech issues that have dogged many U.S. campuses. It seems there is a growing ignorance of history, a disregard for the truth and a dismissal of expertise, she said.

"We must stand behind the core values of free expression, intellectual diversity and patient engagement of new ideas," she said, echoing the concerns of the Republican-heavy UNC Board of Governors. She applauded the Institute of Politics at the Chapel Hill campus, a student run effort that seeks to host debate among elected and appointed leaders, both Republicans and Democrats.

At a panel discussion afterward, leaders of the Triangle campuses said companies are attracted to North Carolina in part because of its universities.

"We're really focused on creating jobs," said N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson. "We'll start 20 companies this year out of N.C. State. We hope the next SAS is among those."

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