News: CJ Exclusives

UNC-P Optometry School Questioned

Critics say decline in number of optometrists show school unneeded

UNC-Pembroke leaders are in the development stages of a proposed School of Optometry — a school some say is unneeded given the prospect for a surplus of optometrists in the country.

Already, $10 million in state funding has been appropriated for UNC-Pembroke to plan and develop the new school. According to UNC-Pembroke Vice President for University and Community Relations Glen Burnette, that money cannot be used until the UNC Office of the President gives the proposal the green light. UNC-Pembroke officials are scheduled to meet with members of an administration committee within the Office of the President by the end of the month in an effort to obtain approval to go ahead with the project.

If approved, Pembroke’s school would enroll 25 students for its first class in 2007.

Currently, there are 17 optometry schools in the U.S., but none in North Carolina.

UNC has reserved 84 spots at four of those optometry schools. Most of those reserved spaces come via a contract with the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). That contract, in existence since 1973, reserves spaces for North Carolina optometry students at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tenn., the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and the University of Houston. The system also has a separate contract since 1977 with the Pennsylvania College of Optometry.

People who have studied optometry at other schools can become licensed to practice in the state.

Students who attend a public SREB-contracted school pay in-state tuition at those schools. Those who attend the Southern College of Optometry, a private college, receive a $5,000 reduction in tuition. Students who attend the Pennsylvania College of Optometry receive the full amount in tuition assistance. There is no requirement that North Carolinians studying optometry through those programs practice optometry here.

According to UNC General Administration spokeswoman Joni Worthington, only 65 of the 84 slots were used during the 2003-04 school year.

Forecasts done for the American Optometric Association (AOA) call into question the need for a new optometry school. A study released in 2000 estimated that by 2010, the nation would have 3,700 more optometrists than needed. Commenting, Thomas Lewis, president of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry wrote, “I don’t think anyone in the colleges is thinking about increasing enrollment, but we should be concerned about a decline.” He added, “We don’t need more optometrists, but we do need to maintain the high quality of students who come into this field.”

The fact that fewer North Carolinians than could are taking advantage of the SREB program casts further doubt on the need for a school of optometry at UNC-Pembroke.

One opponent of the proposed school is Dr. Roger Fillips, an optometrist from Hartington, Neb. He has begun a petition at to stop the UNC-P project. Fillips said 109 of the 863 signatures on the petition are from North Carolina optometrists and students.

In an interview, Fillips said he believes there is an oversupply of optometrists currently in the profession. Many optometrists, he said, are giving up the profession and going into real estate and other occupations because they’re unable to find jobs commensurate with their training.

Fillips notes that established schools, such as The Ohio State University College of Optometry, one of the oldest in the nation, have extended their registration deadlines because they are unable currently to find enough quality students to fill the spots currently available.

UNC-Pembroke contends in a press release that there is a need to increase the supply of optometrists, especially in rural and minority communities, but gives no reason to believe that students who received their optometric training at its school would be any more inclined to locate in rural areas than students who attended other institutions.

“Even though some believe that the overall numbers of optometrists is adequate, they are over-distributed in the urban areas,” according to a UNC-Pembroke press release. “We also believe in the next 20 years the number of retiring optometrists and the increased demand for eye care will make room for many more eye care professionals.”

Dr. Fillips disagrees, saying that “another school of optometry would cost taxpayers more money, further dilute the applicant pool of bright students, lead to further loss of optometric specialty services, and cause more expensively educated, experienced ODs to leave the field entirely to make a living.”

Shannon Blosser ([email protected]) is a staff writer with the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Chapel Hill.