TRUITT: NC must embrace innovation in higher education

“If we are to leverage the talent we have here in North Carolina, we must provide additional pathways to higher education for our citizens.”

ADVANCE FOR USE SATURDAY, MAY 21, 2016, PHOTO- In this May 13, 2016, photo, Tia Zhang, left, and Joy Liu, log into their computers for their online course classes at Nauset Regional High School in North Eastham, Mass. (Merrily Cassidy/The Cape Cod Times via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES; TV OUT

North Carolina has much to be proud of when it comes to the affordability of our higher education institutions. Even though average tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. have risen nearly four times faster than the inflation rate over the past decade, our state’s leaders have continued their commitment to maintain a world-class university system that families in the Old North State can afford.

State funding for the system ranks ninth in the country, and although tuition has increased 44.5 percent since 2008, the average tuition at our public universities is the eighth lowest in the United States. Best of all, average student debt for North Carolina’s graduates in 2016 was the eighth lowest in the country.

It sounds like an all-out win for a state whose economic health and job growth continue to be the envy of nearly every other state in the country.

However, a new study conducted by Dr. Rebecca Tippett of Carolina Demography has cast a shadow on this state of affairs. Tippett found that only about one of every five North Carolina high school seniors will complete a four-year degree within six years after graduation, and only 15 percent will do so at a UNC System school. This means that nearly 80 percent of our state’s high school graduates will not be able to reap the benefits of a university degree before age 25.

Data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute showed that college graduates, on average, earned 56 percent more than high school graduates in 2015, up from 51 percent in 1999. This is the largest such gap in EPI’s figures dating back to 1973.

Additionally, there are currently 645,000 early- and mid-career adults aged 25 to 54 with only some college and no degree. This is problematic because North Carolina’s job growth is on track to outstrip its population growth by 2024, and if businesses can’t find the qualified employees they need, they will take those jobs elsewhere. If we are to leverage the talent we have here in North Carolina, we must provide additional pathways to higher education for our citizens.

According to NC State University economist Dr. Michael Walden, colleges and universities need to be agile if they are to continue helping ensure workforce preparedness in the future. Walden argues that higher education institutions must be able to track occupational shifts, reallocate resources as these changes occur, and accommodate more adult students who are changing careers.

Many North Carolinians face various obstacles in their pursuit of higher education, including cost. The federal government currently holds $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans, and the Department of Education claims Federal Student Aid’s loan portfolio now accounts for nearly 10 percent of America’s national debt. Forbes magazine reports that student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category, behind only mortgages.

Other obstacles include time, particularly for working adults, and distance to traditional brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning. In rural areas, a drive to the nearest college campus can take an hour or more. While 47 percent of adults in North Carolina on average have a degree or credential beyond a high school diploma, this number can be as low as 24 percent in our rural counties.

One potential solution is nonprofit, accredited online universities that offer degree programs for in-demand jobs like IT, health care, education and business. Online universities without campuses or athletic departments can offer lower tuition. Freed from centuries-old educational approaches, online universities can deliver disruptive models like competency-based education that reward students for mastering knowledge and skills at their own pace, rather than for time spent in the classroom. This is a viable option for many working adults juggling jobs, family and studies.

The hard truth is that jobs today — and especially tomorrow — require more education, skills and knowledge than ever before. In a global economy increasingly dominated by machine learning, AI, nanotechnology and a host of other technical advancements, employees without degrees will be left behind. States that choose not to ensure all their citizens have easy access to affordable, quality higher education opportunities will be as well.

The time is now for North Carolina to embrace innovation in higher education.

Catherine L. Truitt is chancellor of WGU North Carolina, an affiliate of the accredited nonprofit online Western Governors University. She can be reached at [email protected].