CHAPEL HILL At a UNC system strategy session Tuesday, the slide on the screen asked a provocative question: “How much education does North Carolina need?”
Some might answer, “as much as possible.”
Others may suggest “as much as we can afford.”
And still others could pose another question in response: “What does the future job market demand?”
That prickly discussion got under way among a group of higher education and business leaders that is gathering data for the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions – a larger panel crafting a five-year plan for the state’s university system.
Setting a target for the percentage of North Carolinians with a higher-education degree is a dicey proposition. Any goal must be balanced with the reality that the state’s financial fortunes may limit big growth at universities – and that tuition is increasing beyond the reach of more families in an ever-diverse population.
Across the nation, other states are setting similar goals for getting more people more education, with an eye toward creating a better economic landscape that draws high-end jobs.
UNC system staff members on Tuesday presented various scenarios of two-year and four-year degree earners in North Carolina and elsewhere.
In the five states with the most-educated populations, 61.5 percent of the population holds either an undergraduate degree or some type of certificate beyond high school. In the top 10 states according to gross domestic product per capita, the figure is 58.3 percent. North Carolina can expect a figure of 51.4 percent if current population patterns persist.
Data shows that the states with the most productive economies tend to have highly educated populations in which roughly one-third or more of residents have a four-year college degree or higher.
Improving graduation rates
One way to get to better results would be to improve graduation rates, so that more students who start college finish with a credential. A one-point rise in graduation rates would generate more than 500 degree holders annually, said Dan Cohen-Vogel, the UNC system’s senior director of institutional research.
Currently, 59.1 percent of UNC system students graduate within six years – better than the national average, but worse than the top five performing states.
Fred Eshelman, a pharmaceutical executive, UNC Board of Governors member and chairman of the fact-gathering group, voiced concerns about some of the data. He said he wants a firmer idea of future workforce needs for North Carolina. That kind of information is hard to come by, though, in an economy being rapidly transformed by technology.
“There’s no point in cranking out people who can’t get a job,” Eshelman said.
Prof: Educate entrepreneurs
Joe DeSimone, a professor of chemistry at UNC Chapel Hill and chemical engineering at N.C. State University, gave his pitch to the group to ramp up the universities’ research enterprises and educate students to be entrepreneurs. The resulting spinoff companies could help transform North Carolina into an innovation state, he said.
DeSimone pointed out that North Carolina has two universities in the top 15 in the nation when it comes to attracting research dollars from the federal government – UNC-CH at ninth and Duke University at 13th. Public and private universities should collaborate more, he said, and bring in industry from Research Triangle Park.
The state should establish a goal of bringing in $4 billion in federal research with such partnerships, he said.
“We need to relentlessly train faculty and students regarding entrepreneurship,” said DeSimone, who is also director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, part of UNC-CH’s business school. “There is too much research that is not being translated for the benefit of society.”
Fed and state dollars needed
As universities plan for the future, federal research dollars will play a bigger role, as well as private fundraising. But any big strategy for increasing college degree attainment is going to cost state dollars, and it’s unclear what the legislature will support. In 2011, UNC campuses saw a state budget cut of $414 million, and student tuition has risen markedly in the past few years.
But the advisory committee – including Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger, along with heavy hitting GOP donors such as Eshelman and Variety Wholesalers CEO Art Pope – is likely to have listeners at the General Assembly.
“I do believe they would be open to a well-reasoned, innovative strategic plan that will advance the ball in this state,” Eshelman said Tuesday.
In addition to setting a level of degrees that meets the state’s needs, the UNC strategy effort outlined by UNC President Tom Ross has four other main goals – strengthening academic quality; serving the people of North Carolina; maximizing efficiencies; and ensuring an accessible and financially stable university.
The UNC strategic plan is expected to go the UNC Board of Governors in January.