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Driving Access from the Top: How Systems Can Expand Entry Points to Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Driving Access from the Top: How Systems Can Expand Entry Points to Higher Education
By creating a culture focused on access right from the top, in the strategic plan of the entire state system, that priority permeates down to touch every aspect of the work being done on every campus.

“What if all North Carolinians reached their full potential? What would that mean for our state and what would it take to get us there?”
—UNC President Margaret Spellings, October 13, 2016

How can a system as large as the University of North Carolina system, encompassing 17 campuses and enrolling nearly 225,000 students, participate in the access and success of its students? The new UNC strategic plan specifically addresses these areas as well as affordability and efficiency, economic impact and community engagement, and excellent and diverse institutions. We define access as an opportunity for all who are prepared to have many points of entry to the educational institutions of the system as well as multiple pathways toward reaching goals and offering, “academic, financial, cultural, and other knowledge-based services to help all students,” gain admittance and graduate from our institutions. Institutions gain influence and access and support student success among traditionally underserved and non-traditional populations by placing metrics and goal statements directly in the strategic plan. Stating these goals and metrics on a meta level is impressive and inspiring, but there’s more to it. The institution depends on the will and achievements of the faculty and staff who are responsible for implementing goals and metrics.

Addressing these issues of access and student success can also be approached through the many diverse individuals who comprise that vast system by employing a lens of moral imagination: a recognition that everybody matters, acknowledgement that circumstances are not constant between people, and finally, asking critical questions.

Access and student success are two of five pillars in the new UNC system strategic plan alongside affordability, economic impact and community engagement, and excellent and diverse institutions. The plan is the result of several months of discussions with students, faculty, staff, alumni, Chancellors, Board of Governors members, elected officials, business and civic leaders, and the citizens of North Carolina.

This deliberate inclusive tendency supports a recognition that we are in the pursuit of higher education outcomes together—and delivering higher education options to people across the state is therefore a mandate, not just from an institution but from the people who make up and support the institution. The system-level goals of the strategic plan well-position the campuses to take action. But these system-level goals also empower individuals within the system to take action, through this lens of moral imagination, and here’s how:

Everybody Matters

People are often surprised when I relay that only around 29 percent of adults in the United States have a bachelor’s degree. It seems that people with degrees also are surrounded by, you guessed it, other people with degrees. We sometimes tend to forget about the rest of the population. But in fact, over 70 percent of adults over the age of 24 do not have a bachelor’s degree and that means a lot of people are left out. This also means that the term non-traditional is a little outdated, so perhaps a reference of new-traditional better describes the population who may be seeking entry into higher education? Veterans, adult learning, part-time learners, whatever the terminology, acknowledging that every person matters is a prerequisite toward making meaningful steps supporting access and student success for these new-traditional populations. This has to happen at both the institution and the individual levels.

Things Change from Person to Person

When an institution and the individuals who work at that institution acknowledge that very few students come from the same circumstances, and that each student’s needs are particular to that student, a broader array of solutions begins to unfold. Having these discussions in the open, always keeping an eye on strategic and budget priorities, provides multiple levels of input for faculty and staff to support access and student success goals.

Ask Better Questions

Asking critical questions means to approach each discussion held at the campus or department level with an open mind, and a deliberate intent to inquire from multiple perspectives. Acknowledging that everybody matters in something as huge as the UNC system allows faculty and staff to remember that everyone comes from dissimilar circumstances. What creates success for one student may not create the same success for the next student. To successfully support both access and student success at the institutional level, campuses should leave room for faculty and staff to dwell in a place where moral imagination is acknowledged and called upon daily.

The University of North Carolina strategic plan can be accessed here:

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