Ambitious goals, substantial challenges

Jan. 10, 2013 @ 04:06 PM

It is difficult to argue with the University of North Carolina system’s ambitious goals to raise the percentage of North Carolinians who have at least a four-year college or university degree.

The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Direction thinks we should see to it that 32 percent of our adult residents – between the ages of 25 to 64 – should have a college degree by 2018. Within another seven years, the committee wants to see that percentage tick up aggressively to 37 percent.

We have quite a ways to go.  Statewide, the percentage of adults with four-year degrees or better hovers between 26 and 28 percent – different reports reach slightly different conclusions. The U. S. Census Bureau pegs it at 26.5 percent.

Here in the Research Triangle, the commission’s numbers might not look all that ambitious. In Durham, 44 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees or higher. And in Orange County, not surprisingly, the number is 54.6 percent – roughly double the state average. In Wake, the percentage is just under 48 percent.

Those numbers, of course, help to underlie the robust economy of the Triangle that, even in the Great Recession, held up better than most. This area’s employment opportunities in research, medicine and higher education attract and require a highly educated work force.

But get beyond the Triangle and a handful of other areas such as Charlotte (Mecklenburg has roughly 4 in 10 adults with bachelor’s degrees or higher) and the numbers drop substantially.

So, too, the economy in many of those areas craters substantially. Education levels and economic success frequently correlate.

Pushing up our college-graduate percentages is “about the future of North Carolina and being sure that we have a workforce that’s prepared for the 21sts century and can meet the economic demands of this state and our business community, and what’s our role in trying to make it happen,” UNC President Tom Ross said Wednesday.

Ironically, even as officials underscore the need for higher education for more citizens, tuition and fee increases and declining state appropriations in recent years have actually increased the barriers to achieving that education.

Squaring those conflicting directions will be a significant challenge for legislators and educators if we are to achieve the committee’s goal of making North Carolina one of the 10 best-educated states in the country.