After months of meetings and deliberation, the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, headed by UNC President Tom Ross, has completed its five-year plan for the UNC system. While not perfect, the plan takes important steps on academic quality and financial management.
The Strategic Directions process differed significantly from the UNC Tomorrow’s whistle-stop tour of the state in 2007. That process positioned the university system as a “demand-driven” service provider by attempting to address the myriad wants, needs, and hopes of people across North Carolina.
This time, a Strategic Directions Initiative committee, headed by Board of Governors members and businessman Fred Eshelman, did most of the work. It took a data-driven approach and was focused more clearly on educational goals. (Both the Advisory Committee and the subcommittee only make recommendations. The UNC Board of Governors has final authority.)
The plan includes five goals for the future: increased degree attainment, improved academic quality, service for the people of North Carolina (via research and health initiatives), maximized efficiency, and balancing of financial stability and accessibility.
The largest strides in the plan come in terms of academic quality.
The committee wants a mandatory assessment of how much college graduates learned, using the College Learning Assessment. Such an assessment will help parents and students make wiser choices and will give reformers information about the effectiveness of university teaching. The committee recommends that the university require all campuses to make this information public “in a timely manner” (reflecting the fact that some of the information so far has been kept secret).
Also promising is the plan’s endorsement of “a core set of system-wide general education competencies,” including critical thinking, quantitative analysis, scientific inquiry, historical perspectives, and technology literacy. If this is truly a “core” curriculum, it will strengthen students’ understanding of the world and facilitate transfers among UNC institutions and from the community college system.
The university system’s embrace of online teaching is another positive step. Adding more online courses—and controlling for the quality of those courses—will help to meet the needs of an increasingly non-traditional student body. And it will likely allow the university to realize substantial savings on brick-and-mortar campuses in the future.
Coming on the heels of UNC’s higher admissions standards, these changes will help the university focus on meaningful learning —if they can actually be implemented. The Board will need faculty and university buy-in, however. And the faculty has already criticized (PDF) what some see as the intrusion of the Board onto their traditional academic turf.
In addition to focusing on academic quality, the committee recommended some financial efficiencies. Economic realities have already forced the system to begin finding waste and excessive spending across its campuses. To help this happen, the committee is proposing the Carry Forward Program, which allows departments to keep a portion of any unspent budget. This will reduce the “spend it or lose it” mentality that infects universities. But targeted savings in the plan from administrative and instructional budgets are only first steps on a path towards better financial management. More savings can be found by careful examination of university research, centers, and institutes.
Other parts of the plan are problematic.
The university’s goal of having 32 percent of North Carolina’s workforce with a bachelor’s degree is unrealistic—and unnecessary. There should be no set benchmark for the state’s level of education. The workforce should simply respond to market demands—with more students choosing to earn postsecondary credentials as jobs require them.
But if the university wants to set goals for planning purposes, 32 percent is too high. Much of North Carolina’s current workforce, with 28.1 percent holding bachelor’s degrees or higher, is already underemployed. The problem is even worse for recent graduates. In 2010, the Economist found that a third of American graduates aged 25-34 work in low-skill jobs. A recent report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that about 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) require less than a four-year college education. Setting a goal of graduating more students than can find jobs requiring degrees will be costly, both for the state and for North Carolina graduates saddled with debt, many of whom will have to look outside the state for jobs.
Finally, the university’s research agenda, euphemistically called “service for the people of North Carolina” in the report, is another missed opportunity. It targets particular fields of scientific research for expansion, including advanced manufacturing, data sciences, defense, military and security, energy, marine and coastal services, and pharmaco-engineering.
If expansion in these fields will be as valuable as the report contends—bringing billions of dollars’ worth of innovations to the state—the scholars in those fields should compete individually for grants from private enterprise, research foundations, and governments, rather than be supported by state appropriations. If fully funded by the legislature (as called for in the plan’s budget recommendations), those researchers won’t have to compete for grants on their merit. In short, the university is picking winners and losers—a strategy that has misfired at the state and federal level many times in the past.
Despite these missteps, North Carolina should be cautiously optimistic about the UNC system’s new direction. The new plan signals UNC’s intention of moving forward towards a more focused, transparent, and responsible system—a very good starting point.