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Originally published: 2013-01-15 20:55:34
Last modified: 2013-01-15 20:55:34

Testing, job readiness key in draft UNC plan

by Anna Oakes

More North Carolinians with college degrees, standardized assessments and a greater emphasis on job readiness are among the goals and strategies outlined for the University of North Carolina system in a draft plan released last week.

The new UNC Strategic Plan will set priorities for the 17-campus system from 2013 to 2018. A partial draft of the five-year plan, "Our Time, Our Future: The UNC Compact with North Carolina," was released at the Jan. 9 meeting of the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions.

"Higher education represents a significant investment, and citizens rightly expect a return," states an introduction to the document. "That is especially true during a time of constrained public resources and general economic difficulties."

The plan includes five primary goals: setting degree attainment goals responsive to state needs; strengthening academic quality; serving the people of North Carolina; maximizing efficiencies; and ensuring an accessible and financially stable university.

The draft released last week details strategies and action steps for the first three of the five goals; a draft elaborating on the final two goals is expected to be released this week.

Georgie Donovan, an Appalachian State University assistant professor and associate dean of Belk Library, served on a Faculty Advisory Council appointed to provide input to the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions. On Monday, Donovan shared information and opinions about the draft plan and its process with the ASU Faculty Senate.

Donovan said that the 32-member advisory committee consisted of more than a dozen business leaders, but only one faculty, one staff and one student representative. She said she felt the business influence is evident in the draft plan document.

The plan incorporates some input from the Faculty Advisory Council, she said, "but not as much as I would have liked."

"This is one of the most depressing times in higher education in North Carolina, in my mind," Donovan told the Senate.


Increase degree attainment

The draft plan aims to increase bachelor's degree attainment by 25- to 64-year-olds in the state to 32 percent by 2018, aiming for 37 percent by 2025. In 2010, degree attainment estimates ranged from 26 to 28 percent, the draft said.

To increase the number of North Carolinians with bachelor's degrees or higher, the plan directs the state to strengthen and expand pre-college readiness programs, such as GEAR UP and the Minority Male Mentoring Program, and to increase the retention and graduation rates of students already in the pipeline. The plan also calls on campuses to draw in adults with some college credit to finish their degrees.

Donovan called the degree attainment goals "extremely modest." But the draft plan cautions against "overshooting": "The system should not grossly overshoot, however, thereby running up costs and saddling students with debt, only to find that they are unemployed or underemployed."

Citing information from the N.C. Commission on Workforce Development, the plan states that 19 percent of North Carolina jobs required a bachelor's degree or higher in 2010.


Academic quality

The draft plan aims to strengthen academic quality at UNC institutions by assessing the impact of minimum admissions requirements, setting core competencies for General Education programs, becoming the national leader in the assessment of student learning gains, implementing a comprehensive e-learning strategy, reducing attempted hours to degree through more comprehensive advising and preparing more higher-quality teachers and school leaders.

The plan stopped short of mandating a common General Education curriculum for all institutions, which was discussed, Donovan said, instead calling for systemwide core competencies for General Education programs. General Education courses are required for all undergraduate degrees.

The following skills should be considered for inclusion in the required competencies, the draft states: critical thinking and quantitative analysis; scientific inquiry; communication skills; historical and social perspectives; human expression and creativity; health and wellness awareness; information and technology literacy; and global and cultural awareness, diversity and citizenship.

Although it acknowledges an aversion to broad-based standardized testing, noting the Faculty Advisory Council's statement that "appropriate assessment processes must not be limited to any one measure that attempts to capture all of the complexity of the desired competencies," the draft plan nonetheless advises the UNC system to work with one or more national testing organizations to develop a robust assessment strategy.


Serving North Carolina

Under the goal of serving the people of North Carolina, the plan urges the university system to support game-changing research and scholarship that creates big ideas to solve big problems; translate discoveries and insights into action, policy and products; and meet health-care needs through innovative research, training and outreach.

Among the action steps in this area is the formation of seven consortia in "areas of excellence": pharmacoengineering, data science, advanced manufacturing, energy, defense and military, culture and tourism and applied public policy.

Several faculty senators expressed concerns that North Carolina, through this plan, is abandoning the value of a liberal arts education.

"I'm not seeing a commitment to areas that create informed imagination," said Ray Miller, a theater and dance professor.

English professor Holly Martin said that English, as a subject, isn't just about writing. "I found the document very disturbing," she said.

But other senators responded more optimistically. Jeff Holcomb, government and justice studies professor, said faculty likely already do more of what's being proposed in the Strategic Plan than they realize.

And Jim Stoddard, marketing professor, said it's possible to demonstrate the value of arts to the state in monetary terms to state leaders seeking data-driven results.

The UNC Strategic Plan is scheduled to be presented to the UNC Board of Governors for approval Feb. 8.