News: CJ Exclusives

New UNC programs should focus on helping students find work, pay off debt

Peter Hans, president of the UNC System. (UNC-TV image)
Peter Hans, president of the UNC System. (UNC-TV image)

The UNC System wants to ensure new degree programs prepare students for successful careers. 

University of North Carolina System President Peter Hans will overhaul the standards for creating new degree programs. Campuses will now weigh the public interest when adding the programs — and decide whether the degrees help students find work and repay their debt. 

Board members are also talking about applying the review process to existing programs, says David English, UNC System vice president for academic programs, faculty, and research. The UNC System Board met Thursday, Jan. 21. 

“It’s right and proper that we ask to hear the public case for each new program we consider,” Hans said in his prepared remarks. “How will it serve the people of North Carolina? How will it leave the students and citizens of this state better off tomorrow than they are today?”

That data is critical for today’s college students. 

Graduates will enter an economy ravaged by the virus and the shutdowns. The national unemployment rate fell to 6.7% in December, but that number hides the economic devastation awaiting young adults. Unemployment among 20-24 year olds was 11.25% in December. When the shutdowns began last spring, one in four young adults was out of work. 

“I think a public university has a heightened obligation to ensure that all we do is in service to students, and that we never let institutional needs cloud our commitment to students’ professional and financial wellbeing,” Hans said.

The new standards will vet proposed degree programs by their economic outcomes. Administrators will now consider whether graduates would be able to repay their debt and launch a career. 

“How do we make sure the institutions are examining the data about their own students’ debt levels, their loan repayment rates, and the opportunities for these degrees to lead to a fulfilling life and fulfilling careers that allow them to manage their debt levels?” said English. 

The new standards apply those principles of fiscal responsibility to the colleges themselves. Before spending to create new degree programs, campuses must ensure there’s demand for them. 

Hans aims to protect schools from losing revenue to new degree programs. Under the new review process, universities must weigh the cost of new programs, student demand, and their own financial resources. 

The universities can’t afford to waste money. 

UNC Chapel Hill lost $200 million to COVID-19. It plans to cut personnel costs by 3% and operating costs by 15% over the next two years. Its annual operating expenses were almost $3.2 billion in fiscal 2019-20. 

The General Assembly faces the same uncertainty. The economic collapse will affect state revenue, but lawmakers don’t yet know the full extent of the damage. 

“Ensure that any new program they put in place is on sound financial footing,” English said. “The last thing you want in any time — let alone right now — is to have an institution take on a program that they’re not equipped to handle.”

Hans says the changes won’t restrict campuses’ ability to propose new degree programs. 

“The goal here is not to create a bright line, where if you’re above the program goes, and if it’s below, it doesn’t,” English said. “The goal is to make sure that they’re carefully considering the program.”