CHARLOTTE — The University of North Carolina is in good shape, but the 17-school system is ever in need of improvement.

So said UNC President Margaret Spellings on Monday, March 19, during a “state of the university” address. University performance is looking up, she said, pointing to rising graduation rates, increases in research funding, and drops in tuition costs over the past few years.

That’s no reason to be complacent, she said.

“The question before us now is how we uphold our core mission in a rapidly changing world. North Carolina is the place where we can, where we must, answer that charge.”

Spellings was appointed in 2015 to a five-year term and began March 1, 2016. Two years into her term, she has faced controversy, headed a strategic plan to increase college access, affordability, and transparency, and honed relationships with state lawmakers.

Economic mobility, a topic Spellings has raised many times, remains a huge concern, she said. No student should be trapped by income or upbringing, and the university must find new ways to demolish barriers to education.

Thanks to tuition caps and major cost cuts at three UNC schools, school bills are staying relatively low, she said.  

N.C. Promise, enacted in 2016 by the General Assembly, slashes in-state tuition at UNC Pembroke, Elizabeth City State University, and Western Carolina University to $500 per semester. All three schools have seen a spike in enrollment since the price break took effect.

The former U.S. Secretary of Education, an outspoken advocate for traditional higher education, lauded the program as a groundbreaking accomplishment.  

Still, Spellings doesn’t think a college degree is the answer for everyone looking to climb the economic ladder.

“I’m not a believer in college for all, and I don’t know any university president who is.”

North Carolina’s nontraditional student population is ever-expanding. Forty percent are 22 or older, and 36 percent attend college online — or in an online/in-person format, Spellings said.

Apprenticeships and certificate programs are excellent options for people who don’t wish to pursue a baccalaureate degree, she said.

But to thrive, she said, UNC must prioritize transparency and accountability. University reputations take hit after hit in an age in which campus free speech and political controversies dominate the media. UNC should support free expression and restore public trust, not feed conflict and disrespect.

“A college education remains one of the most integrated and intellectually demanding experiences in American life. We need to be calm and respectful in debate. … Our students are watching how we lead and govern.”