A good plan to widen access to UNC

Margaret Spellings
Margaret Spellings cseward@newsobserver.com

Margaret Spellings has a worthy map for the next years of her presidency of the University of North Carolina system. The system’s Board of Governors has adopted a new strategic plan for the 17 campuses in the system, and the plan’s goals speak to some things the system has needed to do for a while.

One particularly worthy goal is to boost enrollment of low-income students by 13 percent and increase the number of low-income graduates by 32 percent. The system’s big research schools, if they don’t work at it, risk becoming the “social elites” in the UNC system. And while the tuition levels in those schools still are relatively low compared to other similar institutions, it’s important for Spellings and other leaders to understand that affordability isn’t just about comparisons to, say, the University of Michigan or the public institutions in California.

North Carolina is not a wealthy state, and now, in the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession, many families are still struggling. And there’s a reason that the state constitution essentially promises an education that ought to be as close to free as possible. It’s because many generations of state leaders saw the benefits of people from all income levels getting a good education — it made a difference in developing leaders, in improving the character of the state, in offering all citizens a dream of becoming the first in their families to get a college degree — which many were.

Under the late UNC President William Friday and his successor, C.D. Spangler, tuition remained low and they fought any flirtation with large increases. But tuition has increased dramatically since their tenure ended. So another goal from Spellings and her board, to hold down costs, is crucial if the target of educating more low-income kids it to be reached. UNC branches, particularly the research schools, also need to look at cutting administrative costs.

Another nice aspect of the strategic plan is to require each campus to assist a county in the state which is distressed — poor, underemployed, etc. The universities do need to reach out more to those places, to the people the system is supposed to serve. That kind of effort will help broaden the perspective of individual campuses, their students and their leaders.

Also promising is a goal of increasing the number of students who graduate in five years or less. The number is 65 percent. It should be much higher.

Overall, the plan is refreshing in its commitment to the millions of North Carolinians who have supported their university system since its founding. Their university should set goals to which it will answer, and it should reach out to its constituents — each and every one of North Carolina’s 10-million-plus citizens. The UNC system’s mission, after all, is public service, first last and always.