North Carolina Embraces the Challenge of Affordability and Quality in Higher Education

North Carolina is embracing the challenge facing many states to address issues of affordability and quality in higher education, while supporting students, faculty, and administrators throughout their careers, working closely with policy makers and legislative leaders, and focusing on meeting the educational and workforce needs of our current and future economies.  As various efforts attempt to ameliorate challenges facing higher education, we often stumble across a truth often discussed in the field of organizational behavior: large institutions are built to endure, not change.  

If public institutions in North Carolina do not evolve to meet student needs and demands, there is concern that demographic changes and economic shifts may cause significant upheavals in their growth and sustainability.  Today’s students in the state differ dramatically based on the institution the students attend. For the University of North Carolina, 16 universities range from serving traditionally-aged students, to institutions where the majority of students are over the age of 25.  Some serve a large number of military-affiliated students, others are minority-serving institutions, and a few focus on liberal or visual/performing arts. They range across the Carnegie classifications and span the urban-rural divide that is common throughout North Carolina and other states.

In North Carolina, all public universities and public community colleges share in the constitutional mandate to provide high quality education at the lowest cost possible.  This shared affordability commitment and the dedication to embrace the recently-adopted statewide educational attainment goal is driving many current conversations to help more students get to and through college.   This goal, born from a year-long effort led by public, private, and nonprofit leaders engaged in the MyFutureNC Commission, was adopted last year by the state legislature and governor: 2 million high quality credentials for North Carolina adults ages 25-44 by the year 2030.

It will be impossible to reach this goal without improving services to the traditional college-going population and focusing on serving adult learners in a meaningful, intentional way.  The UNC System is working closely with the North Carolina Community College System to improve collaboration, streamline transfer processes, and minimize hurdles that have tripped up so many students along their pathways to success.  Shared funding and programmatic opportunities have provided increased opportunities to collaborate, including being named one of the Lumina Foundation’s Adult Promise states in recognition of North Carolina’s efforts to support post-traditional students.

One example of why this is crucial to the educational success of our state was highlighted in the recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse, Some College No Degree.  The data show that North Carolina had the ninth largest population of students with some credit yet no credential.  That is over 1 million adults in the state who came to, but not through, college.  There are countless reasons why these North Carolinians did not earn a credential (i.e., large number of students enrolling for only one or two classes, insufficient advising, life circumstances preventing completion), but these (and all) students could benefit from both systems focusing on improving processes, pathways, and policies to help them return and complete.

With the myriad data pointing towards problems and barriers to success, the higher education sector in North Carolina recognizes that a key element in any success will be supporting institutional and programmatic innovation, as well as providing opportunities for institutions to experiment with new programs.  This involves innovative advising practices such as moving towards coaching models for recruitment, enrollment, and retention that are currently being piloted and implemented across the state. It embraces thoughtful, meaningful expansion in digital learning offerings that do more than reproduce content for online delivery and truly embraces the promise of technology to improve learning outcomes and increase access to higher education.  It also includes evaluating the current financial aid availability and models to asses if there are better, more accessible, and more equitable ways to financially support institutions and students. And with the state being home to so many military-affiliated students (both active duty and former military), any effort to focus on adult learners would be incomplete without strategies to support their educational goals, which is why both systems have invested time, talent, and resources to improve services, credit articulation, and relevant academic choices for military-affiliated students.

Whether the post-traditional students coming to public community colleges or universities in North Carolina are first-time students, individuals with some credit but no credential, seeking academic credit for their military or professional experiences, or looking for skills to change or improve their careers, our public, private, nonprofit, educational, political, and economic sectors are united in our support of today’s students.  We recognize that we must expand our offerings and improve our services, as today’s students are not always well-served by the traditional higher education model of matriculation, teaching, learning, and graduation. More can be done for the residents of our state and the students at our institutions in order to support the growth of North Carolina and by focusing on the needs of today’s students, North Carolina is pivoting towards the future in the policy and practice arenas of higher education.  There is more to do and more to learn, and we are anxious to engage in the process and be successful for all traditional, post-traditional, current, past, and future students.