Sharon L. Gaber is the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. America’s higher education system is in the throes of a five-alarm crisis, but it has nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, this crisis calls into question the very notion that college can be an engine of economic mobility for those on the lowest rungs of the ladder.
So much has been made of the need to help more disadvantaged students attend college, and access is a critical issue. But the crisis in higher ed today is also about success. Yes, how many students start college is essential, but we also need to focus on how many finish.
The promise of a bachelor’s degree as a game-changer can be fulfilled only for those who complete their education.
As the new chancellor at UNC Charlotte, I’m pleased to see higher ed in this region make a difference in bridging the opportunity gap. Still, more can be done to unleash its potential as a vehicle for economic mobility, locally and beyond. And I believe UNC Charlotte’s work to close that gap could serve as a model for other colleges and universities across the country.
We’re approaching this in two ways: helping community college students transfer and bringing back former students who didn’t finish.
In North Carolina alone, of roughly 500,000 high school graduates expected to enroll in a post-secondary institution between 2018 and 2029, fewer than half will graduate on time, and many will not complete their degrees, according to a report by the NC Education Pipeline Research Project, which studies educational attainment in the state. For all public universities in North Carolina, the six-year graduation rate gap between first-time students who received the federal Pell Grant, an indicator of financial need, and those who didn’t is 14.1%. At UNC Charlotte, we’ve narrowed that gap to just over 3%. Sharon Gaber is the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Over the past 10 years, UNC Charlotte — now the second-largest public institution in North Carolina and the only public research university in our part of the state — has steadily increased access for low-income students in the region. Approximately 75% of our students receive financial aid, 37% are first-generation undergraduates, and a similar share — more than 11,000 students — come from underrepresented and underserved backgrounds.
Getting more students across the finish line has required rethinking all majors to reduce barriers to progression and graduation, helping students select the right course of study, and strengthening their commitment and ability to succeed. More specifically, it requires hands-on intervention to manage individual student outcomes.