The Old North State has much to be proud of when it comes to the affordability of our higher education institutions. Even though average tuition and fees at four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. have risen nearly four times faster than the inflation rate over the past decade, our state’s leaders have continued their commitment to maintain a world-class university system that North Carolina families can afford.

State funding for the system ranks ninth in the country, and although tuition has increased 44.5 percent since 2008, the average tuition at our public universities is the eighth lowest in the U.S. And best of all, average student debt for North Carolina’s graduates in 2016 was the eighth lowest in the country.

It sounds like an all-out win for a state whose economic health and job growth continue to be the envy of nearly every other state in the country.

However, a new study conducted by Rebecca Tippett of Carolina Demography has cast a shadow on the situation. Tippett found that only about one of every five N.C. high school seniors will complete a four-year degree within six years after graduation, and only 15 percent will do so at a UNC System school. This means that nearly 80 percent of high school graduates will not be able to reap the benefits of a university degree before age 25.

In addition, there already are 645,000 early- and mid-career adults aged 25 to 54 with only some college and no degree. This is problematic because North Carolina’s job growth is on track to outstrip its population growth by 2024, and if businesses can’t find the qualified employees they need, they will take those jobs elsewhere. If we are to leverage the talent we have here in North Carolina, we must provide additional pathways to higher education for our citizens.

This is why we believe in the mission of Western Governors University (WGU). Founded in 1997 by a bipartisan group of governors, WGU — the nation’s largest nonprofit online university — has been changing lives through affordable, online education for more than 20 years. One year ago WGU North Carolina was launched through a partnership with the state. Since then, more than 1,600 individuals have enrolled, 390 students have earned degrees, and nearly $400,000 in scholarships has been awarded to 200 students, including $83,000 to veterans.

According to N.C. State University economist Michael Walden, colleges and universities need to be agile if they are to continue helping ensure workforce preparedness in the future.

Walden argues that higher education institutions must be able to keep track of occupational shifts, reallocate resources as these changes occur, and accommodate more adult students who are changing careers. These requirements are second-nature to WGU because our degree programs are designed by councils comprised of business and industry leaders as well as education experts.

Fully accredited, WGU North Carolina uses an innovative learning model called “competency-based education,” which measures actual learning rather than seat time. Designed to meet the needs of busy working adults, this model allows students to study and learn on their own schedule, moving quickly through what they already know so they can focus on what they need to learn. Students have 24/7 access to learning resources and consistent, one-on-one faculty support, advancing as soon as they demonstrate mastery of course materials through papers, presentations and exams.

The benefits don’t end there. WGU graduates’ full-time employment rate exceeds that of graduates nationally, graduates of public and private not-for-profit universities, and other nontraditional graduates by almost 20 percentage points. And 100 percent of employers polled say WGU graduates are prepared for their jobs.

In particular, we must bring these opportunities to North Carolinians living in rural communities if we are to meet workforce demands. Currently, low-income families in rural counties face a range of barriers when seeking higher education, including economic, geographic and social factors. WGU NC’s ability to partner with local community colleges ensures that a pathway to higher education is within reach for our rural citizens. Providing education that is accessible, affordable and that offers degrees leading to employment must be a top priority for North Carolina.

The hard truth is that jobs today — and especially tomorrow — require more education, skills and knowledge than ever before. In a global economy increasingly dominated by machine learning, AI, nanotechnology and a host of other technical advancements, employees without advanced degrees will be left behind. States that choose not to ensure all of their citizens have easy access to affordable, quality higher education opportunities will be as well.

The time is now for North Carolina to embrace innovation in higher education.

(1) comment

Lots more talk from people who are out of touch with industry needs. Frankly though it is industry’s responsibility to drive workforce training. Apprenticeships run by and funded by employers is how it’s done in places like Switzerland, where 70% of all careers begin with a 3-4 year apprenticeship starting at age 16. Community colleges can play a role here, but probably not universities. See NCTAP or Apprenticeship 2000 for two good examples of this in our state. End all taxpayer support for universities and end taxpayer-backed student loans and students will focus more on career preparation. Otherwise college is little more than an extension of high school and unbounded partying by grown adolescents.

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