Anyone who thinks UNC System President Margaret Spellings isn’t serious about higher education access and affordability needs to take a look at the University’s new strategic plan.

The plan aims to make our public universities look more like the rest of North Carolina, with a special emphasis on increasing enrollment among students from rural and low-income families.  In 4½ years, the aim is to increase enrollment of low-income students by 13% and rural students by 11%.


“This University can do more to improve the quality of life and broaden opportunity for all North Carolinians,” Spellings said.

“The game has changed, and we’ve got to change with it.  In a state that’s both growing and growing more diverse, we have to make some level of higher education our goal for all students.”

The seven-page plan explicitly recognizes multiple pathways for students to get to college, whether by transferring from a community college or through online courses.

Access is about more than just getting to college, though – it’s also about earning a degree.  The plan adopts an ambitious goal of graduating 37% more low-income students and 20% more rural students by 2022.


Overall, the plan also adopts a goal of increasing the percentage of freshmen who graduate within five years by 5.1 percentage points, to 70%.

In a state with a constitutional mandate to keep university tuition as close to free as possible, the new strategic plan acknowledges that tuition has been rising faster than North Carolinians’ incomes.  The plan would limit tuition increases to increases in a three-year rolling average of median income in the state.

“Affordability is critical if we’re going to educate more North Carolinians to higher levels,” Spellings said. “We have to do our part by targeting resources more effectively and keeping costs low.

“This isn’t a detailed prescription of everything we’re going to do. It’s a statement of our most important goals, and it gives our chancellors and campus leaders a lot of flexibility in getting there.”

Without buy-in from state legislators, though, the pledge to limit tuition increases to increases in median income will be meaningless.  Legislators showed promise last year when they adopted the NC Promise Tuition Plan, which:

  • Ordered fixed tuition rates for four years for students at all state universities, starting with the freshman class that entered last fall;
  • Limited increases in student fees to 3% a year; and
  • Provided as much as $40 million a year to “buy down” tuition to just $500 a semester for in-state students at Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University. 1

If legislators can keep that commitment – or increase it – they’ll take a big step toward fulfilling both the strategic plan and the constitution they swear to uphold.

1, pp. 54-55.

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