Wednesday, June 19, 2024

You oughta know: Hope Williams

Hope Williams
[/media-credit] Hope Williams


For many years, experts have predicted the demise of many small private colleges, contending negative economic and demographic trends suggest a difficult future. It hasn’t happened in the 25 years that Hope Williams has led the N.C. Independent Colleges and Universities. The Raleigh-based group has 36 members, one fewer than when she became president in 1992. The schools enroll about 68,000 undergraduate and 22,000 graduate and professional students.

Williams says the colleges have adapted to never-ending change by focusing on areas of increased demand and working hard to attract donors committed to the private institutions and their students.

Williams’ group ranges from international powerhouse Duke University to small institutions such as Brevard College. There are five historically black institutions, and three are women-only.

She discussed her work in an interview last week. Comments are edited for brevity and clarity.

What is your big picture after more than 25 years on the job?

It is remarkable to see how these institutions have adapted. Their roots go back to 1772 when Salem College was founded. Many were established in the 1800s, and all started by the mid-1950s or 1960s. We’ve been around a long time.

Enrollment has grown significantly, and the impact on the state’s economy is remarkable. The colleges have a $14.2 billion economic impact, and many are the largest employers in their communities. One in four baccalaureate degrees and one in three graduate degrees are issued by our members.

The colleges employ about 66,000 people, which includes Duke’s medical facilities. It doesn’t include Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, which is not officially part of Wake Forest University.

What signs of success are relevant?

North Carolina has the highest graduation rate in K-12 than we have ever had. More students are eligible to go on to higher education.

Our college-going rate is now above the national average at about 65%.

We have tremendous partnerships with the Community College and UNC systems.

Many of our campuses are doing more adult programs, which is a major accomplishment for North Carolina, where so many citizens have had to drop out of college before completion.

What discipline has shown the most progress?

The growth of programs in health sciences has been particularly impressive. We make up 92% of the physician-assistant degrees and 55% of the pharmacy degrees.

We’ve also had tremendous growth in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs where there is such growing demand. Our colleges have built strong relationships with local businesses for years. We’re seeing that in Winston-Salem with Wake Forest’s Innovation Quarter, Duke’s work in downtown Durham and even in smaller towns. Pfeiffer is adding programs in Albemarle.

One might argue that High Point and Elon have made the greatest advances of the private colleges in our state over the last 25 years. Agree?

We’ve had a number of institutions that have made tremendous strides. There are no more hardworking people than those who head up our institutions.

Those two universities have shown that it’s very important that donors step up and make things possible. What is state-of-the-art today becomes out of style. We have to keep refreshing our programs.

Is North Carolina’s educational system progressing?

I’m proud of working in a state that respects higher education. Site Selection magazine named North Carolina as the No. 1 state for economic development, and higher-education resources was cited as a key factor. The state is among the leaders in graduation rates and articulation agreements, and we are awarding more degrees than ever. I think we have made great progress.

A majority of students in Charlotte and other school districts are achieving poor results in standardized testing. Is that a concern? 

We have a lot of work to do to make sure more first generation and low-income students can complete college, which can transform their lives.

But our numbers are headed in the right trajectory. We have made significant progress in providing the right program.

I think states do look to us as a model because of our two-year and four-year programs. That shows leadership to me.

How do your schools compete with public institutions that charge lower tuition?

Affordability is a key challenge. North Carolina provides significant subsidies to keep tuition low at its public institutions, more so than many other states. But we meet those challenges by combining federal and state aid programs with more than $600 million of institutional aid annually.

About 50% of our students are Pell eligible (indicating they qualify for federal tuition support). That is above the UNC average and lower than the community-college average. That shows we work very hard to make sure those who want to come or can come to college are not kept out by financial circumstances.

We think that is a very important part of who we are. We are very proud of supporting students in many small towns and rural areas of North Carolina.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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