CHAPEL HILL — Less than a year after taking leadership of the 17-campus University of North Carolina system, Margaret Spellings has a plan for making the state’s public colleges more welcoming to rural and minority students, more affordable and more involved in their communities.
She’s taking that plan, and its yardsticks to measure performance, to budget-writing legislators who start their annual session on Wednesday and will decide how much to spend on higher education.
University leaders are asking the state Legislature to commit spending an extra $83 million this year and $148 million next year to the roughly $2.8 billion from state taxpayers. The bulk of the new money would go to handle an expected 2 percent annual enrollment increase to the nearly 210,000 students.
“We’re a growing state, thank goodness, because that’s one of the things that’s keeping us an economic superpower. So when you have more people show up, we need more money to serve them,” Spellings said during an interview last week with The Associated Press.
Academics and other university employees should get no more and no less in raises that legislators give other state workers, according to the UNC system’s official request.
Higher on the agenda is money to feed into a drive to make UNC schools more efficient and a university degree more affordable.
The budget and policy priorities seek “a more productive, data-driven, and accountable system of higher education,” according to the spending outline approved by the university system’s Board of Governors this month.
At the top of the priorities list is $28 million over the next two years for the people and hardware needed to dive into billions of bytes of warehoused spending and student data to fish out actionable, cause-and-effect information.
“I know that may seem a little dry or dull, but no Fortune 500 company or no big enterprise would try to make a guessing game out of investing and out of strategies that are going to meet the objectives,” said Spellings, who was U.S. education secretary under President George W. Bush.
Spellings and her board want another $1.5 million over two years to collect new data on how our graduates fare in the working world after leaving one of the public universities and to gauge what attracts professors and other highly-educated people to UNC schools or prompts them to leave.
“Human capital is the name of the game. You can’t run an excellent institution without excellent staff and faculty,” Spellings said. “Who are we losing? Where are we losing them? Why are we losing them? If we’re losing them. I hear things like, this is a great system, nobody ever leaves. Is that true? I don’t know.”
Spellings’ strategy roadmap aims to increase the number of students from low-income or rural households by double-digits. By fall 2018, every UNC campus will commit to somehow helping an impoverished nearby community.
University leaders say they’ll strive to hold tuition increases to the household inflation rate, which has been running at about 2 percent per year. The state Legislature last year passed a law freezing tuition increases for students who stay in school and graduate in four years. Those who take longer face financial penalties.
The strategy to lessen UNC tuition costs — the state constitution requires that it be kept as low as practical — depends on whether state legislators will make up the difference, or whether taxpayer funding will continue to diminish and be replaced by outside research grants and corporate support, said Appalachian State University history professor Michael Behrent, one of Spellings’ critics.
“Clearly, the concern about affordability is an important one. It is one of the great problems and tragedies of American education,” Behrent said. “I hope that the emphasis on affordability doesn’t become a kind of indirect way to further defund universities in the UNC system” that took budget cuts in the Great Recession’s aftermath.
Also, while academics joined with other state employees in receiving minimal pay raises for years, some of the chancellors running university campuses have received double-digit increases twice within the past 15 months, said Behrent, a state leader of the American Association of University Professors, which advocates for higher education faculty