On Monday, President Spellings wrapped up this year’s State of the University tour with one final address, hosted by the Triangle’s four institutions: North Carolina Central University, the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Coming on the heels of graduation season, the timing of this event tacitly reinforced the core sentiment of the president’s speech: at the moment when graduates’ college years start to recede into the past, faculty, administration, and staff must work even harder to serve the students who remain and those who have yet to enter the University.

Despite graduating more than 54,000 students in the 2017-18 academic year, the University’s primary focus remains on improving its performance. While the address touched on recent accomplishments, Spellings’ speech also highlighted a number of new initiatives the System is pursuing to make sure that even more students leave the University with a sense of achievement and the key to a gratifying, more financially secure future.

Checking the Speed: Data and Digital Dashboards Measure Institutions’ Progress

During her address, the President thanked the NC Legislature for supporting the University’s efforts to modernize how it collects, compiles, and interprets data.

Broadly speaking, making better use of data can and will provide educators, legislators, and every North Carolinian with more information, which will help measure the System’s operational efficiency and impact. Data modernization will promote transparency and give invested partners more concrete information about how well the University serves the state.

As stewards of taxpayer funds, universities have a responsibility to evaluate and report on how these funds are being invested. The UNC System wants its data systems to be every bit as sophisticated and edifying as those that keep businesses ahead of the curve. In its push to modernize how it uses data, the University is leading the charge in the national effort to establish new standards for measuring the effectiveness of higher education.

“Good leaders embrace accountability in order to get their institutions to where they need to be,” Spellings said. “I’m glad that, as a System, we are paving the way forward.”

If data modernization gathers the materials for the tarmac, the System’s recently launched Data Dashboards offer invested partners a long view of the road ahead. This one-of-a-kind tool bundles together each institution’s strategic plan, its self-articulated performance agreement, and the data that measure the progress toward those goals. As new data come in on a yearly basis, a mere glance at these dashboards allows anyone to see how quickly System institutions are moving toward achieving their goals.

Getting Students In: Improving Access to Higher Education

These dashboards can be an indispensable tool for evaluating how each constituent institution is performing.  But the wealth of information they offer means little to underserved North Carolinians for whom college is out of reach.

“College changes lives and lifts families,” said Spellings, “[But] opportunity is meaningless if you can’t afford it.”

As the University looks forward to the future, it is extending its commitment to making higher education more accessible and more affordable to all North Carolinians. Getting more students across the platform on graduation day starts with getting more students into the classroom in the first place.

This academic year will inaugurate the University’s groundbreaking NC Promise program, which will—thanks to NC Legislative support– drop semesterly tuition to $500 for students enrolled at three UNC System institutions: Elizabeth City State University, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Western Carolina University. NC Promise brings highly affordable education to each region in the state, ensuring that North Carolinians from east to west have access to higher education and the brighter futures a college degree affords.

The strategies for keeping costs down aren’t limited to the three NC Promise institutions either. Institutions across the System have implemented plans to control tuition so that the rate of increase does not exceed the median household income growth rate.  In addition, once a student is enrolled, her tuition will not increase as long as she stays on track to graduate on time.

Looking ahead, the University has announced a joint effort with the North Carolina Community College System to study how financial aid application and distribution processes—both at the State- and institutional-levels—can be streamlined and standardized. The goal is to keep students and parents armed with actionable information as they make financial arrangements to invest in higher education.

Such efforts underscore the University’s continued dedication to its historic obligation to keep education “as free as practicable.”

Of course, making college accessible involves more than just making it affordable. Students must be ready and eager to attend as well. In 2018-19, the UNC System will begin to see the results of other initiatives that will create more pathways to higher education and ensure that more P-12 students are on track at an early age to enroll in the University.

By the end of the year, the myFutureNC commission will issue recommendations about how the full educational continuum–from Pre-K, to community colleges, from the University System to the workforce–can be better aligned so that, from the moment children step into their very first classroom, they are on track to pursue the education beyond high school that they need to compete in a modern economy.

The commission’s top prority is setting a statewide educational attainment goal for how many North Carolinians need post-high school education. The commission will also identify what’s needed to remove the barriers our students face from early childhood through postsecondary education.

The University has also prioritized strengthening its teacher preparation programs. President Spellings stated explicitly that readying students to be superlative teachers is a “personal priority” for her. Equity in education begins long before students graduate high school, and any effort to extend higher education’s benefits to more students depends on a stronger P-12 system with top-tier teachers.

“Our teachers are the most important tools we have to get our students ready when they graduate high school,” she said. “We have to treat them like the professionals they are, preparing them in college to be ready on day one to use the research-proven strategies to help struggling students learn.”

The University’s efforts to improve teacher preparation began with a top-to-bottom review of its colleges of education, conducted with the support of The Belk Foundation. The report, Leading on Literacy, provides the foundation for a statewide effort led by UNC System deans of education and other state education leaders to chart a path forward for our colleges of education.

Getting Students Out: Improving Student Success

As Spellings’ address made clear, getting more students in the front door at a university is only half the battle. System institutions also need to work harder to ensure that more students who enroll as freshman actually follow through.

Today, more students than ever are graduating instead of dropping out. Over the past five years, the System-wide graduation rate has gone up six percentage points. But the UNC System is committed to making further improvements on each freshman’s odds of becoming a graduating senior.

An integral part of the University’s vision for the upcoming academic year(s) is its new Student Success Innovation lab, which has a simple goal: fund, evaluate, and share the strategies that get more students across the finish line.

Most students walk into their first-year seminars, teeming with excitement and eager for the future. But as with any pursuit that takes many years to complete, sometimes obstacles get in the way: financial difficulties; family problems; poor academic performance in a challenging required course; or emotional turmoil. Too often, students who face even one hurdle find themselves falling behind, and the excitement of that freshman year gives way to feelings of desperation.

The Student Success Innovation Lab is based on the premise that helping students triumph over such challenges shouldn’t rely on random acts of kindness, nor be should student success be restricted to isolated pockets of progress at our institutions. The Student Success Innovation Lab provides support for instructors and administrators to pilot promising ideas in the classroom—ideas that can help more students overcome these challenges so that they too can pursue intellectually and professionally fulfilling opportunities.

Just as importantly, the lab provides a mechanism for testing these new teaching strategies. It won’t just fund alternative approaches; it will also measure outcomes and cost effectiveness. When the lab finds tangible evidence that an innovation works–and that it works efficiently–the System will invest in expanding its use across each of its 17 institutions.

This process is already well-underway. In November 2018, 15 institutions submitted proposals in response a student-success RFP. The System Office has already started directing funds toward initiatives that will help these institutions achieve the student-success goals outlined in the Performance Agreements each institution established as part of the System’s overall Strategic Plan.

Helping students stay in school, succeed in class, and get to graduation isn’t a single strategy endeavor. The funded student success initiatives outlined here focus on three areas that have a high impact on student success: teaching and learning, student advising and support, and financial aid.

Student success requires the University to think strategically thinking on all fronts. These initiatives represent just some of the innovative approaches UNC System institutions have adopted to address some of higher education’s most vexing challenges. All of these efforts are undertaken with one end goal, achievable and in sight: more mortar boards flying up into the air as graduates take wing, soaring confidently toward more productive futures as the UNC System leads North Carolina into the middle of the 21st century.