Sep 272012

By Jane Stancill –

CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina needs more workers with education beyond high school at a time when the population is increasingly diverse and the state has a long horizon of fiscal challenge.

That’s the landscape facing the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, a group of about 30 higher education, business and political leaders who began work Wednesday on a roadmap for the state’s public universities.

The group’s timeline is ambitious – a report is due in January to the UNC Board of Governors, in time to present to the next governor and legislature.

The UNC system previously undertook an intense planning effort under former President Erskine Bowles. That group, called the UNC Tomorrow commission, finished its work in 2007.

But Bowles’ successor, Tom Ross, said it’s clear that much has changed since 2007, including the deep recession and North Carolina’s slow recovery.

“It is certainly time to recalibrate for the future,” Ross said.

He suggested the committee come forth with specific educational attainment goals for North Carolina’s population. Some two dozen states have undertaken similar strategic plans.

In Virginia, for example, the state’s business, political and educational leadership have a plan to produce an additional 100,000 four-year, two-year and graduate degree earners in the next 15 years. It’s even written into law.

Oregon made news when leaders there settled on something they call the “40-40-20” plan, with the goal that by 2025, 40 percent of adults will have a four-year bachelor’s degree, 40 percent will have a two-year associate degree and 20 percent will have a high school diploma.

Such plans are ambitious, Ross acknowledged.

“Having those goals as a state is sending a message to businesses that ‘We’re going to be ready for you,’” he said. “I want us to be ready.”

A study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimated that by 2018, 59 percent of jobs in North Carolina would require education beyond high school.

But churning out more college grads is easier said than done. North Carolina’s fast-growing population is much more diverse, with stubborn minority and gender achievement gaps and disparities between urban and rural areas. Meanwhile, the aging of baby boomers means that the state does not have enough young, educated people to replace the retiring workers.

Growth and education

From 1990 to 2007, population growth in North Carolina was 127 percent among whites, 133 percent among blacks and 829 percent among Hispanics.

But Hispanics have the lowest educational attainment of any other minority group in North Carolina. Forty-eight percent of Latinos ages 25 to 44 don’t have high school diplomas, according to census data.

“The fastest growing population is also the least likely to get out of high school,” said Dennis Jones of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

That has to change, said Jim Johnson, a demography researcher with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

He told the panel that North Carolina must embrace its newcomer population to prosper economically. The birth rate of Hispanic women in the state is about double that of whites.

“We’re going to need them,” Johnson said. “If you can’t make them, you’ve got to import them.”

Johnson pointed out that 245 languages are spoken in North Carolina schools. Meanwhile, the state’s universities are undergoing massive turnover as baby boomer faculty retire.

“The question becomes where do you get the next generation of talent from … to make sure that the kid that walks across the stage is equipped and ready to compete in a global economy where the only constant is change and uncertainty,” he said. “That’s the new normal, folks, and we have to reinvent K-12 education to prepare kids for the new normal.”

Daunting questions

The lesson on demography came at a time when one student group this week questioned the diversity on the UNC panel itself. One student, one faculty member and one university employee serve on the committee, which is made up largely of corporate leaders and higher education administrators.

The questions on the table are daunting, said Peter Hans, chairman of the UNC board.

“We want to make sure we’re doing our part to spur the economy,” Hans said. “Are we producing enough college graduates? Do they have the right skills and knowledge? What’s the impact of demographics and workforce needs? How can we allocate our resources most effectively to address these issues?”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

via Research Triangle news | Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston, Chatham | Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary | The News & Observer.


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