Ross said increasing degree attainment is a clear path to better employment rates and economic growth. The plan sets goals of having 32 percent of N.C. residents with four-year degrees by 2018 and 37 percent by 2025, up from 26 percent currently.
Achieving the 37 percent threshold will involve reaching out to veterans, community college students and the 1.5 million people in the state with some college credit but no degree, Ross said.
But a fresh $65 million systemwide cut to state funding for 2013-14 has caused some of the plan’s first steps to be put on hold, he said.
The reductions have forced universities to rely more on tuition as a source of revenue — and Ross said increasing tuition year after year, given changing demographics and socioeconomic gaps, isn’t sustainable.
In August, Ross recommended a systemwide in-state tuition freeze for 2014-15 after a decade of increases.
“I think it’s time for us to say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s take a pause here,’” he said. “The economy is recovering — let’s see what the state is going to do. Are they going to do their part?”
The General Assembly approved an out-of-state tuition hike at most system schools in the state’s two-year budget, including a 12.3 percent bump at UNC-CH.
When the system’s Board of Governors met last week, they discussed a new four-year tuition plan that would go into effect in 2015 and cap tuition increases for in-state students at 5 percent annually. The cap would be subject to change each year, depending on outside factors, like state appropriation levels.
The proposed plan doesn’t cap increases for out-of-state tuition, but mandates that rates are market-driven and reflect the cost of a quality education. Board members’ input will be incorporated into the finalized plan, which will come in front of the board for adoption early next year.
To keep tuition from skyrocketing, Ross said system universities need a renewed emphasis on private fundraising — another goal of the strategic plan — to supplement their budgets.
He said system leaders will use the plan to show state political leaders how higher education can move forward.
Ryan Regan, a second-year candidate for a masters of public administration at UNC-CH, said he thought the lecture was relevant as North Carolina transitions from manufacturing and textiles to a more technical focus.
“As somebody who hopes to get into that career — economic development — I’m going to play a role in hopefully facilitating that transformation that the state’s going under, which involves, like (Ross) said, a higher education component,” Regan said.
Still, in an interview, Ross said liberal arts will continue to play a foundational role.
“I don’t think we ever ought to get in the business of driving the degree based on what we think their employment is going to be,” he said.
“Most of the jobs that students today will hold probably haven’t even been created yet.”