A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a cover story with the headline, “The 2 North Carolinas.” It explained how the state’s historic investment in higher education has paid off handsomely but not for everyone.In the regions of our state where colleges and universities have helped seed new industries and attract new businesses, economic growth is strong, wages are high, and unemployment is reaching historic lows.But in places where the pathway to higher education has frayed, there are fewer options. The vast majority of jobs created since the Great Recession require education beyond high school, and that presents a stark challenge for those who haven’t had the opportunity to earn a degree or a credential.That’s the reason we have one of the fastest-growing economies in the country alongside some of the lowest rates of economic mobility. The chance to earn a better life is the cornerstone of the American dream, and it increasingly depends on access to quality education.No state lawmaker or university official can control those economic trends, but we can do far more to make the university an engine of opportunity for all North Carolinians. Our current educational and economic divide is evidence that higher education needs a fresh approach.As the Chronicle report put it, “The lesson of North Carolina may not be to write off higher education as a driver of economic growth, but to recognize that there are limitations to what colleges can do and to understand that they may need to do things differently than in the past.”I agree. Universities can’t be all things to all people, but we can focus our resources on creating simpler, cheaper, and more flexible options to serve a changing state.That’s why the state’s public universities have adopted a very focused, straightforward strategic plan. As North Carolina’s demographics change, we need to welcome more rural, low-income, and first-generation college students. We need to make it easier for working adults to attend classes online, in the evenings, and at a pace that works for their lives.We absolutely must end the steep rise in tuition that has hurt middle-class families and pushed college out of reach for others. And we must do it all while maintaining the world-class research and scholarship that distinguish our public universities.These aren’t distant dreams. With seventeen institutions serving every region of North Carolina, and some of the strongest state support anywhere in the country, we can shape a more promising future. Our colleagues at the state’s community colleges and the Department of Public Instruction have resoundingly endorsed the University’s plan, pledging to help create a more coordinated, more unified approach for students at every level.Our policymakers have shown a willingness to go big with initiatives like NC Promise, which lowers tuition at three UNC-system institutions to just $500 per semester. Our chancellors and our faculty are eager to experiment with new kinds of curriculum and teaching, with redesigned classes to help students graduate on time and growing internship and cooperative programs that connect students to job opportunities.Our aim isn’t simply to grow, but to improve. We have a graduation rate that’s a full 10 percentage points higher than the national average, but we’re focused on closing achievement gaps so that even more students finish on time. We have some of the lowest tuition rates in the country, but we’re committed to making college more affordable and raising more money for financial aid.There shouldn’t be two North Carolinas when it comes to educational opportunity. As the state toast promises, this is the land where the “weak grow strong and the strong grow great.”Simply put, everyone deserves the chance to rise.Margaret Spellings is president of the University of North Carolina.
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