The Pulse

UNC committee continues to debate higher ed’s role in state

By: - October 25, 2012 3:40 pm

Workforce projections. Value-added. Return on investment. Supply-side.

Those were some the words tossed around during a day-long meeting Wednesday of the University of North Carolina’s Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions. The 32-member committee of political, business and academic leaders is in the midst of hashing out a five-year plan for the 17-campus public university system.

“Ultimately the question is what type of state do we want North Carolina to be,” said Tom Ross, the president of the UNC system and co-chair of the strategic directions committee.

The value of the university system to the state will be on the mind of lawmakers this spring, when a new two-year budget for the state is developed, said Jeff Tarte, an incoming Republican member of the state Senate from Cornelius who serves on the advisory committee.

“You want money, well what are you going to do with it?,” Tarte said during Wednesday’s meeting. “Not only what are you going to do with it, what value does it return?”

Both Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, are members of the strategic directions advisory committee, but neither of the Republican leaders attended Wednesday’s meeting.

Wednesday was the second time the committee met in its entirety and discussion remained polite as members looked at statistical breakdowns of education levels and economic trends in the state. But divisions between commission members will likely emerge in future meetings as the committee decides whether to recommend a leaner university system with goals hinged on meeting market demands or a system that sees expanded higher education opportunities to drive the state’s economic engine and help impoverished communities.

College for the many, or fewer

One of the thorniest issues the university system will deal with is just how many North Carolinians will have a shot at higher education.

Discussion at Wednesday’s meeting toward talking about what needs business owners would have in the future in the workforce, and how to prepare young North Carolinians for those jobs.

About 28 percent of the state’s workforce, ages 25 to 64, have bachelor’s degree, and that need will be grow about 32 percent in 2020 if the economy grows at a similar rate based on the industries now operating in the state, said Daniel Cohen-Vogel, the director of institutional research for the UNC system. That number goes up to 40 percent in more highly-educated states.

Questions were brought up about whether the UNC system should set a conservative degree attainment number, so as not to send out freshly-minted, and indebted, UNC graduates to a job market that doesn’t have room for them.

People, and industry, may be better served by having less concentration on four-year degrees, and more looking at learning trades.

“You want to put your supply and demand in equilibrium,” said Jack Cecil, an advisory committee member and CEO of Asheville’s Biltmore Farms, speaking in favor of setting a lower degree attainment goal.

Others disagreed.

“Half the states in the country have already set those goals,” said Hannah Gage, a Board of Governor’s member and retired broadcast executive from Wilmington. “They’ve got programs in place to move to that direction. If we’re not aggressive in our aspirations, we’re going backwards.”

The committee needs to go beyond looking at the university’s goals in terms of solely building future workers, and also look at the other positive benefits a highly educated population has on communities, said Peaches Blank, another UNC Board of Governors member who lives in Tennessee.

“If we’re about education, then we’re about education for more than just the job,” Blank said. “We want this state to be highly educated.”

But the cost of education needs to be considered given the fiscal constraints of the state, said Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive also on the board of governors.

“Well, we got to figure out what we can afford as well,” he said.

Eshelman and Raleigh retailer Art Pope’s position on the committee has attracted criticism as both are significant donors to conservative and Republican causes in the state.

At the end of the meeting, UNC-Chapel Hill public policy professor Dan Gitterman asked advisory committee to keep in mind that the UNC system, more so than other universities, equally serves students from both rich and poor backgrounds.

“Every day I teach students at Carolina where you have thrown open the doors of opportunity at an affordable price,” Gitterman said. “I feel very confident about what we’re doing.”

The advisory committee will meet again in November, and begin deciding its recommendations.

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.