In 2017, the UNC Board of Governors rolled out a five-year strategic plan that set specific targets for improving graduation rates, attracting more rural and low-income students and other measures at the 16 campuses.They also set up an online dashboard system to let everyone monitor the progress.
Three years into the plan, UNC Interim President Bill Roper and other UNC officials say the progress is encouraging with the overall system exceeding the 2022 goal of at least 70% of students graduating within five years.
A clear top performer among the campuses is UNC Greensboro, the only campus to meet its five priority targets for two straight years. Two other campuses – UNC Charlotte and N.C. State – exceeded their five top metrics in the last year, while four campuses – Appalachian State, East Carolina, UNC Asheville and UNC Wilmington – met or exceeded four out of five.
UNCG has added about 1,300 low-income students in the last five years; boosted research funding; graduated more students in high-demand fields including nursing and technology; and improved its five-year graduation rate. But Chancellor Frank Gilliam Jr. says he is most proud of leading the UNC system in cutting the gap in degree completion between minority and non-minority students.
Greensboro’s success underlies other research showing that it ranks among the top U.S. universities, and best in North Carolina, in improving economic mobility for students, says Giliam, who was a longtime public policy professor and dean at UCLA before taking the Greensboro post in 2015.
“While we’re proud of this achievement, the thing that gets lost in this story is excellence. We didn’t give these degrees away. Our faculty pride themselves on being in the classroom,” he says. “At UCLA, the faculty didn’t want to teach. The emphasis was really on research productivity. At UNCG, people come here because they want to be teacher-scholars.”
UNCG officials brand their school as the system’s most diverse campus with non-Caucasians making up about half of its fall 2019 enrollees. It has among the system’s highest percentage of students eligible for federal education grants and its graduation rate for African-American students, who make up about 23% of enrollment, is about 20% higher than the average at 15 peer institutions. It’s quite a transformation for a university that started as a women’s college in 1891 and didn’t admit men until 1963.
Giliam theorizes that Greensboro’s African-American students are outperforming national averages because they may feel less isolated than at most institutions, where they make up less than 10% of the student body.
UNCG accepts more than 80% of applicants, which Gilliam says shows a commitment to helping students of all academic backgrounds. “Our students come with native intelligence, but many of them don’t have built-in advantages of more affluent students. That doesn’t mean they aren’t smart.”
The university last year started a Division of Student Success and recruited Andrew Hamilton to lead as part of his role as dean of undergraduate studies. Hamilton, who previously worked at the University of Houston, has added spark to the university’s efforts, Gilliam says.
How the metrics are updated to achieve even better results probably depends on the next UNC president, Gilliam says. The system hasn’t had a permanent president since Spellings left in March 2019,. While the Board of Governors is searching for a new president, tumult caused by the coronavirus pandemic is delaying the hiring.
Giliam says he’s concerned that UNCG’s freshmen enrollment will suffer in the next year or two because many students come from low- and middle-income families that face particular financial constraints as the economy suffers. Total enrollment edged up to 20,196 last year, compared with 18,647 in 2014.