A small group of state education and business leaders met today in Chapel Hill to have initial talks about what the role of higher education is in the state, and whether it should continue to expand.
The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Initatives  is tasked with coming up with a five-year strategy of where the 17-school systems should head in light of the rocky economy, a legislature less included to invest heavily in the schools and rising tuition costs.
The makeup of the 31-member committee  has drawn criticism, with heavy representation from the business committee and two of the state’s biggest conservative political funders, Fred Eshelman of Wilmington and Art Pope of Raleigh, serving on it.
Eshelman chaired Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting, where a smaller group of members gathered to hash out a plan for how the larger committee should approach the five strategic goals – setting degree attainment numbers; strengthening academic quality; serving the people of North Carolina; maximizing efficiency and ensure the long-term financial stability of the UNC system.
The biggest source of differing opinion at Tuesday’s meeting centered around discussions about how many people in the state need or should go to college, and what degree attainment goal numbers the UNC system should have.
To maintain North Carolina’s economic viability, the state needs 51 percent of its population to have some type of degree or certification, including both 2-year and 4-year degree, said Dan Cohen-Vogel, the UNC system’s senior director for institutional research.
Several economic development studies recommend shooting for a 60-percent number, based on the idea that more innovation would come out of a more highly-educated population.
“It’s two philosophies of what happens if you have a lot of educated people,” said Gary Miller, the UNC-Wilmington chancellor. “We would buy the argument that if you got it up to 63 percent [of population with secondary education], you would have an economic boom.”
A fellow UNC chancellor, Phil Dubois of UNC-Charlotte, made similar comments earlier in the meeting when he argued for encouraging the state to shoot for higher numbers of people with degrees, and not lower expectations.
“Expanding opportunity can’t be bad,” Dubois said.
But Eshelman countered, saying that state has financial constraints that can’t be ignored.
“Except that we’re in a weak economic period,” Eshelman said. “We have to look at what we can afford for X amount of returns.”
Eshelman also said the Republican-led legislature wasn’t going to fund the universities without hearing pitches that spell out the economic benefits for the state.
“They don’t want to hear about generalities anymore,” Eshelman said. “They want to hear numbers.”
After the meeting, Eshelman told reporters that the initial meetings are designed to be a candid exchange of ideas, and that the process is not a political one.
He said discussions about bringing in more revenue will continue, whether it be from donors, partnerships with companies or tinkering with tuition rates and financial aid before delivering the UNC systems’ needs to the state legislature.
“They’re looking for something that is coherent, well-reasoned and that we can execute if they happen to agree with it,” he said.
The larger strategic committee meets again on Oct. 24.