N.C. colleges hanging tough amid financial pressures

 In May 2018

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College campuses impress with their mix of beautiful environs, passionate young scholars and, at times, vigorous debate. Their economic impact is also often understated: It’s hard to imagine Winston-Salem without Wake Forest or Banner Elk without Lees-McRae, for example.

But a mantra I’ve heard for many years is less enchanting: North Carolina has too many colleges and universities to be feasible, with higher-education economics and demographics certain to force closings or mergers. Many years back, a friend who is a Methodist minister made that case about the state’s private colleges, particularly the half-dozen schools affiliated with his denomination. You’ll see a bunch close in coming years, he predicted. As recently as March, I heard similar sentiments about the 17-campus UNC System and 58-member N.C. Community College System from some influential state business leaders: N.C. higher ed is too costly, with too many duplicate programs and services.

So how has membership in the N.C. Independent Colleges & Universities changed since 1992, when Hope Williams became president? It has declined by one, to 36, she says.

The news is that the institutions adapted to change by adding programs for working adults, focused on high-demand employment sectors, instituted athletic programs in our sports-crazed culture and hustled for donations from devoted alumni and friends. In short, some have done whatever is necessary to keep the doors open. Leading a private college is “frankly, not a job for sissies,” Warren Wilson College President Lynn Morton says in one of our stories this month (Page 66).

No one has done it with more pizzazz than High Point University, once one of the floundering Methodist-connected schools decried by my preacher friend. The transformation led by HPU President Nido Qubein is jaw-dropping. Other N.C. private institutions have shown similar progress, Williams says.

Likewise, North Carolina invests heavily in its public campuses, as is evident by rampant building and increased enrollment at many sites. North Carolina’s public tuition remains among the lowest nationally, while UNC System President Margaret Spellings praised lawmakers last year for providing the best funding in a decade. Investing in UNC boosts the state’s economy and progressive image, studies by Site Selection magazine and others suggest.

At the same time, the value of higher education is under fire more than ever, for good reason. Debt loads incurred by many students are staggering, while skills demanded in a fast-changing economy often differ significantly from skills gained in traditional college settings. Michael Bloomberg famously said more teenagers should aspire to be plumbers rather than business majors. The weak graduation rates at several UNC campuses are sparking debate over whether too many borderline students are gaining admittance.

Change is inevitable, particularly as online learning programs blossom because of their advantages over classroom settings for many learners. The community-college system appears poised for significant change, with a new leader soon to be selected. A commission led by Raleigh insurance executive Dale Jenkins and Charlotte banker Andrea Smith is pressing for improved coordination in North Carolina education from kindergarten through postgraduate programs. Most important, the UNC Board of Governors has a record number of firebrands demanding faster, more robust change. One result: Spellings is holding her 17 chancellors more accountable than ever (Page 62).

Through it all, North Carolina’s colleges have found ways to stay relevant. That’s one thing not likely to change.

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