By Paul Fulton
Higher Education Works

North Carolina’s public universities have long been considered our state’s most important asset – they offer opportunity to students from Murphy to Manteo, and in the process they serve as our state’s strongest economic driver.

In fact, a study two years ago found that together, North Carolina’s public and private institutions of higher education contributed $63.5 billion to the state’s economy in 2012-13 – and our public universities produce 70 percent of the state’s undergraduate and graduate degrees.1

Higher education is a big deal in this state – a huge contributor to our workforce, our health and our culture.

For decades, our universities have opened their doors to the people of North Carolina and helped improve their socioeconomic standing.  That “lift” will only become more pronounced as roughly two-thirds of the jobs of the future are projected to require education beyond high school.

Our universities have generated research that first improves the lives of the state’s residents, but that also generates great economic energy in places like Research Triangle Park, UNC Chapel Hill’s medical complex and NC State’s Centennial Campus.

These universities were built over the years by positive leaders like the folksy-yet-shrewd William Friday.

And we have an excellent, positive leader today in President Margaret Spellings.  President Spellings has visited all 17 public universities and appears to appreciate the unique role each one serves.  Given the chance, she can be a positive change agent to better higher education in our state.

She fundamentally understands that we must reach new populations – rural, minority, low-income and first-generation students – if we are to equip them with the skills they need to meet the ever-increasing demands of our global economy.

Spellings likes to say we need to build more “on-ramps” to higher education through programs like the College Advising Corps, which places recent college graduates in rural high schools as advisors, or through partnerships with community colleges where students can complete their first two years.

The UNC Board of Governors – which oversees the system – unanimously adopted a strategic plan this year that was developed by Spellings and her staff to build more of those on-ramps.

The plan places continued emphasis on access and affordability.  It sets measurable goals for enrollment of low-income and rural students and limits on tuition increases.

But the plan doesn’t just aim to bring more students to campus.  It also emphasizes completion of degrees – the degrees that are increasingly essential to secure a job that will support a family.2
It is up to President Spellings and her team to execute that plan.

If we are to connect North Carolinians both urban and rural with those high-skilled jobs of the future, we must work together to make higher education accessible to greater numbers of students.

The Board of Governors and all of us need to support President Spellings in that mission.  Our future and our children’s futures as North Carolinians depend on it.

Paul Fulton of Winston-Salem is a former president of Sara Lee Corp., former CEO and board chair of Bassett Furniture Industries, Inc., former dean of Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC Chapel Hill, former member of the UNC North Carolina Board of Governors and Co-Chair of Higher Education Works.

1  Figure includes public universities, community colleges and private institutions of higher education.


  1. William Rhod Reep says

    If “On Ramps” are to work I suggest “Vouchers 4 Community College Bound” Students first instead of private for profit schools! -Rhod Reep

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