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University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings made the following remarks Thursday, Aug. 10 at the North Carolina Chamber’s 2017 Conference on Education.

Thank you so much for welcoming me this morning, and thank you for focusing attention on a core issue for North Carolina’s competitiveness and quality of life.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading some troubling polling data about higher education. The New America Foundation concluded that pretty much no one thinks the status quo in higher education is working well. A huge majority — 83 percent! — of white working class voters think that a college degree is no longer a sure path to success in America, according to a political consultant’s poll published by Politico.

And most striking of all — a Pew Research finding that 58 percent of Republicans think higher education is bad for the country. Here in the United States, home of the world’s finest universities and the birthplace of public higher education, a majority in one of our two political parties thinks colleges and universities are a net negative to the nation.

That should sound alarm bells far beyond academia. It raises worrisome questions for the health of our political system and our economy.

Because make no mistake — we are in this together. The same surveys that show a sharp decline in confidence in higher education also indicate a broader, even more ominous erosion of faith in institutions of all kinds. And that includes the nation’s business community.

Many of our citizens believe the American economy simply isn’t working for them. We’ve heard President Trump say that “The system is rigged!” And for a strikingly large number of Americans, that rings true. You can’t turn on the television or open a newspaper without seeing vivid evidence of this weakening faith in the American Dream.

Hillbilly Elegy, which chronicles the decline of working class communities in Appalachia, has been on the bestseller list for months. And a book called Dream Hoarders, by a Brookings Institute scholar, is prompting conversations about how wealthier Americans tilt the nation’s institutions — including colleges — in favor of their own kids, undermining our supposed meritocracy.

Build more on-ramps

Far too many people feel excluded from the education opportunities, the job opportunities, the career opportunities that lead to successful lives and prosperous communities. That’s a problem for all of us — the business sector and higher education.

A rising GDP doesn’t mean much if your household income is declining. Low unemployment is less exciting if you’re stuck in a job that offers no prospect for training and advancement. A surging stock market makes no difference to a person with no portfolio. And a strong return on investment for a college degree doesn’t feel relevant to someone who can’t see a pathway to higher education.

I firmly believe more people ought to go to college because it would be better for our state, better for our country, and better for those individuals. But we live in a country where 2/3 of all people *haven’t* graduated from a college or university. Given that reality, we can’t have an economic message that begins and ends with more college degrees.

Telling a mid-career employee with two kids, health insurance, a mortgage and a couple of car payments that her future advancement depends on going back to school for a bachelor’s degree right now simply isn’t realistic. It breeds resentment, and it makes people skeptical of our civic institutions and our business community for offering such a narrow, unworkable path to middle-class stability.

We need a relentless focus on building more on-ramps to stable jobs and career advancement. Right now, too many people feel like there’s a single shot at success. It arrives when you’re a 17 year-old high school senior, which we all know is the ideal age and maturity range for make-or-break life decisions, and if you miss it, then you’re stuck in a life of low-wage work and unstable employment. That’s the dominant narrative; that’s the perception fueling those ugly poll numbers.

Offer viable options

Combatting that narrow view of economic opportunity is going to require significant changes in the way we think about education beyond high school.

We have to revamp our education system to guide far more students into viable options for a degree, a certificate, or some form of training. I don’t have to cite the litany of statistics and workforce projections that show rising demand for high-skilled, highly educated workers. You all know that landscape even better than I do.

Today, we lack sound coordination between our preschools, K-12 schools, community colleges, private colleges and University system. We’re here to talk about the education continuum and North Carolina, and the truth is that we don’t have a continuum. The failure to build unified pathways — to make education beyond high school the default option — is holding back our students and holding back our state. When you survey North Carolina 9th-graders, they overwhelmingly plan to go to college. But at every step, we put up bureaucratic and financial hurdles that knock students off track.

I’m perfectly fine with a graduating senior who decides against college right away because they’re not ready. But I’m not fine with a qualified student who can’t see a pathway to higher education because it’s too expensive, or they don’t feel welcome, or they don’t see the link between college and career. I’m not fine with a graduating senior who feels too confused to pursue any option, whether it’s community college, an apprenticeship, or a training program.

People want to be productive, contributing citizens, and it’s on us to offer them that chance. That’s why we’re bringing together a commission of civic leaders, business leaders, education and nonprofit leaders to help create a truly coordinated, P-16 pathway in North Carolina. There’s a tremendous amount we can do to smooth the rough transitions between our institutions, and to proclaim a unified message of higher expectations for all our students. We’re one of only ten states that doesn’t have a shared post-secondary attainment goal. That needs to change.

Partnerships with business 

We also need much stronger partnerships between higher education and the state’s business community to develop affordable, practical options for mid-career employees who want to advance their skills. We have too many people without jobs, and too many jobs without the right people to fill them. That seems like a problem we can solve.

I hear all the time about a skills gap in the American workforce, a lack of the technical and soft skills required for the work all of you need. If that’s true, then help us fix it. I hear from employers that colleges aren’t flexible enough when it comes to serving working adults, and I agree. But I also hear from students who feel that employers don’t offer nearly enough flexibility and support to pursue more advanced credentials.

According to Census data, there has been a steady erosion in on-the-job or employer-sponsored training over the past few decades, meaning fewer chances to upgrade human capital and move our communities and our economy forward. Given the growing pressures of technology and trade, we need to meet each other halfway for the sake of bolstering competitiveness and opening doors for our people.

There are great examples of this already in some of our critical workforce programs. Across the University system, we’ve developed a range of innovative, highly flexible programs for nurses and medical technicians, recognizing that our state has a vast unmet need when it comes to educating the next generation of medical professionals. We’re not doing nearly enough — the state needs about 9,000 new nurses each year, and all of the public and private colleges in North Carolina are producing just 3,000 — but we’re moving in the right direction with online programs, highly concentrated summer coursework, and credit for armed forces medics who are transitioning into a civilian career.

You’re seeing similar advances in teacher training, with competency-based credits for lateral entry teachers and more experiential learning for first-time instructors. None of these reforms are moving as fast as they should, but we know that our future growth and service to the state is going to come increasingly outside of the traditional, full-time, four-year degree programs. Our state’s demographics are changing, the nature of work is changing, and we simply must meet those trends.

I’m asking all of you to help us get there. Make educational benefits part of your pitch to employees. It’s a huge recruitment and retention tool for our University employees, and it’s been a boon to companies like Starbucks and others who have made big commitments to employee education. Studies have consistently found that education benefits not only attract higher-quality recruits, but they also strengthen long-term retention. If you already offer those benefits, make sure your employees use them well, on quality programs that are going to add value for them and for your company.

We’re always looking for partners to create co-op programs, summer internships, and on-the-job learning projects. UNC Chapel Hill has summer internship grants that help low-income students gain job experience; Western Carolina’s engineering program has seniors working with advanced manufacturing plants all over the region; and Winston-Salem State is working with local philanthropies to offer start-up grants to recent graduates.

A debate long settled

There are programs like those on every UNC campus, and every one of our chancellors is eager to do more. Contrary to what you read from the professional culture warriors, the debate that supposedly pits a good liberal arts education against practical, job-ready knowledge was long ago settled in favor of both.

This notion that we somehow have to choose between real education and employability is false. And it runs counter to our history. This is a country built on the foundational idea of a civically engaged, well-educated citizenry — men and women able to carry out the responsibility of both commerce and government. Show of hands — how many of you earned liberal arts degrees? Took at least a couple of English classes? And I trust none of you are still living in a parent’s basement.

I like to cite the motto at NC A&T, one of our two land-grant institutions. Their Latin seal translates to Mind and Hand. And they adopted it back in 1891, so the idea of happy coexistence between the practical and the intellectual isn’t a new fad.

It’s the sense of division that’s new. For the sake of our civic culture and our future prosperity, we must shed this false distinction between effete college graduates and hardworking business people.  I’ve been to the North Carolina School of the Arts, and I can tell you that choreographing a virtual reality film is incredibly hard work and requires  advanced technical skill. And I’ve been to an agriculture extension workshop, and I can tell you that modern farming requires as much high-tech knowledge and intellectual horsepower as any white-collar profession you can name.

Higher education has no monopoly on wisdom and creativity, and the business world is not the only place where people break a sweat and create value. We have to put to rest the bogus narrative of a productive private sector handicapped by bloated, wasteful public institutions. You all know the value of our state’s schools, community colleges, and universities. You attended them, you hire our graduates, you expect your children and grandchildren to benefit from higher education. And goodness knows you pay for them — North Carolina still has some of the strongest higher education funding anywhere in the country. We have to strengthen these incredible valuable public resources, because an erosion of faith in our shared institutions hurts us all. As I said, we are, very much in this together.

For all the troubling statistics and poll numbers I mentioned above, the one that really caught my eye these past few months came from the New American Foundation. They found that half of Americans now think our country doesn’t respect people who didn’t go to college. And since most of the country doesn’t have a degree, that means a huge number of our fellow citizens feel looked down on for a lack of educational opportunity.

We cannot let that perception harden into a destructive reality. We cannot have a competitive economy or a well-functioning country when such a huge portion of our people feel not just disconnected from the engines of prosperity, but actively discouraged by them.

Graduating low-income, rural, first-generation students

At the University of North Carolina, we’re doing more than just talking about these issues. We’ve put our money where our mouths are when it comes to enrolling and graduating more low-income, rural, and first-generation North Carolinians. We’ve made those measurable benchmarks a centerpiece of our strategic plan, with campus leaders held accountable for reaching them.

And we’re taking on the huge and complex task of reworking our decades-old university funding model to give our chancellors and their teams real incentives to invest in nontraditional students; to respond to the state’s shifting demographics; to make successful graduation the most important goal, instead of simply getting students in the door; and to maintain the research excellence that has brought so much talent and created so much value for North Carolina.

As you all know, a good manager knows how to look at a balance sheet and figure out what he’s being asked to do. Our chancellors and campus leaders are talented managers, and that’s why we owe them an incentive structure and the right tools to get the job done.

The challenges we face in North Carolina aren’t unique. Across the country, states are confronting aging populations, sharp urban and rural divides, and a broad economic shift that is demanding more and better education just as school-age populations are getting poorer and more diverse.

The difference here is that we have a world-class university system, great private colleges and universities, and one of the most extensive community college systems in the country. These engines of upward mobility have been built and sustained for generations by people like you. It was the farsighted investment of the state’s business and civic community that helped create the North Carolina that we take for granted today. It will be your farsighted wisdom that readies the Old North State for a rising generation.

Thank you, and I’m happy to take your questions.

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