Happy WCU Students

Plotting the Course

Data Dashboards Chart Progress Towards 2022

An attention-grabbing tale has unfolded at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. In 2016, the university graduated 895 low-income students. In 2017, 1,008 low-income students completed their degrees.

The story isn’t yet complete, and there are no plans to adapt it for the silver screen as of yet.  But the feel-good plot truly matters. Over the course of a single year, a concerted push resulted in nearly a 13 percent increase in the number of low-income completions. That will change the trajectory for those families and for the state of North Carolina.

The improvement builds on A&T’s track record as an engine of economic mobility for North Carolinians.  According to the Mobility Report Cards compiled by economist Raj Chetty and colleagues, N.C. A&T students had a likelihood of 29 percent of moving up the economic ladder by two or more income quintiles following their time at A&T.  When measured against other universities according to the metric of promoting upward mobility, N.C. A&T ranks 143rd out of the 2,137.

The 2017 jump in low-income completions at N.C. A&T is no aberration. The data dashboards show that this number has risen almost every year since 2011-12. Over the last 3 years, N.C. A&T has graduated nearly 3,000 low-income students. All of them left with significantly better odds of prosperity and more fulfilling lives.

This is just one of the stories that unfold on the UNC System’s recently updated Strategic Plan Dashboards.

When the University created Higher Expectations: The Strategic Plan for the University of North Carolina, 2017-2022, it set ambitious goals for improvement, all structured around five key themes: access, student success, affordability and efficiency, economic impact and community engagement, and excellent and diverse institutions.

The updated dashboards tell the tale of how the University is faring in its pursuit of these goals. Given that its progress depends on hard work and commitment at each institution, N.C. A&T’s success is something of a spoiler: the first annual update of the Strategic Plan data dashboards reveals that the UNC System has achieved all but one of its year-one goals. More impressively, it has already attained its five-year targets for improving overall graduation rates and undergraduate degree efficiency.

“One detail that really stands out in this data is that our graduation rate across the System now surpasses the national average by a wide margin,” said UNC System Interim President William Roper. “This accomplishment doesn’t mean our work is finished. It just means we are excelling. To sustain this graduation rate and the levels we have achieved for our other metrics, we will have to continue our efforts. That said, our ultimate aim is not just to sustain, but to improve.”

"One detail that really stands out in this data is that our graduation rate across the System now surpasses the national average by a wide margin"
- UNC System Interim President William Roper

 

A Brief History of Numbers

In crafting the Strategic Plan, the System Office worked closely with the Board of Governors to map out a set of shared goals for the state’s public universities.  Once those System-level goals were set, the System Office worked with leadership at each university to define the unique contribution that each institution would aspire to make to our shared goals based on institutional plans and priorities. The end result of these efforts was a set of 17 unique performance agreements, each establishing clear expectations that are concrete and measurable and reflect institutional missions and goals.

The dashboards bundle together each institution’s strategic plan, its performance agreement, and the data that measure the progress toward those goals. The latest data have just come in, and the dashboards allow anyone to assess how much progress institutions have made toward their five-year goals.

These latest data provide an early snapshot of where we are headed as a system: increased college access, student success, and, ultimately, economic impact.

Individually Remarkable Work

Several UNC System institutions have made significant strides toward achieving their five-year goals.

N.C. A&T, UNC Greensboro, and Western Carolina University achieved all five of the goals they had identified as priorities. This in and of itself is a remarkable achievement. Even more remarkably, all five of WCU’s priorities, and four of N.C. A&T’s, were ambitious stretch goals. So, these year-one assessments offer particularly striking examples of our institutions’ capacity for setting and accomplishing rigorous goals.

Capitalizing on its designation as an NC Promise institution, WCU exceeded its year-one benchmark to increase low-income and rural enrollments. Prioritizing this metric reflects WCU’s commitment to its historical mission: to provide higher education opportunities to the people of North Carolina’s southern mountain region.

Crucially, WCU’s efforts didn’t just focus on getting more students in the front door. The university also pursued initiatives designed to ensure that more low income and rural students succeed. The dashboard reveals that the university is well on its way to the five-year target of graduating 17.1 percent more rural and 31.8 percent more low-income graduates compared to the baseline year. All these numbers demonstrate that WCU is playing a leading role in promoting economic mobility and workforce development for a distressed, rural region of the state.

Similarly, N.C. A&T’s efforts to boost the number of low-income students that complete a degree reflect the university’s work to improve five-year graduation rates and undergraduate degree efficiency across all student populations.

By investing strategically in innovative academic advising initiatives, tutoring, and structured learning programs, the university has helped students chart more expedient, cost-effective pathways to their degrees. Nearly 49 percent of its students completed their degrees within five years, exceeding even the university’s goal for 2022. This doesn’t mean N.C. A&T’s work is complete. Maintaining and improving upon these numbers in the coming years will continue to be a priority.

UNC Greensboro also boosted its overall five-year graduation rate by 5.1 percentage points since the 2015 baseline year. As of 2018, the university is just short (by a mere one tenth of a percentage point) of achieving its 2022 goal.

This accomplishment is partly the end result of UNCG’s sustained effort to close achievement gaps. For example, the university has already attained its 2022 goal for increasing undergraduate degree efficiency among underrepresented minorities. According to a report by The Education Trust, UNCG’s graduation rate for African-American students is almost 20 percent higher than the rate for African-American students at its top 15 peer institutions.  UNCG is one of six institutions chosen by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to help other universities promote timely graduation for students from underrepresented communities.

The university has also prioritized increasing low-income enrollments and completions, and it has exceeded its year-one goals for both metrics.

The individual degree holders aren’t the only ones who benefit when these graduates walk across the stage with their diplomas in hand. WCU’s, N.C. A&T’s, and UNCG’s performance agreements committed the institutions to growing the number of critical workforce credentials awarded. On the fast route to 2022, all three institutions have exceeded their year-one benchmarks.

As these institutions increase the number and diversity of graduates each year, North Carolina gains a more diverse and skilled labor force, trained and ready to fill urgent teaching, STEM, and healthcare positions.  

Collective Effort, Extraordinary Achievement

There are certainly more than three stories woven into the 2019 refresh of the Strategic Plan Dashboards. There are 17 compelling narratives. Each one offers a unique perspective on how the UNC System is improving higher education and the ways our institutions serve North Carolinians in all 100 counties. These metrics also show the areas where the UNC System needs to work harder if it is to accomplish the goals laid out in the Strategic Plan.

Across eleven out of twelve metrics, the UNC System is meeting the milestones on the way to accomplishing its five-year goals. The System is enrolling more rural and low-income students. It is generating more research productivity and graduating more students in critical workforce areas.

In two metrics, the UNC System has already surpassed its five-year target. It has improved undergraduate degree efficiency, including for Pell grant recipients and male, rural, and underrepresented minorities. And, perhaps more dramatically, since the 2015 baseline, it has increased its overall graduation rates by 4.5 percentage points, including among rural students—many of whom are first-generation university graduates.

On the one hand, the annual update of the System Dashboards is cause for celebration. At the same time, the recently compiled data is a clarion call to action. Although the System and its institutions are on track to attain their five-year targets, this work isn’t yet complete and, in some metrics, it’s running behind schedule. The annual update of the dashboards will ensure that everyone—from the Board of Governors, to the System Office, to leaders at the institution level—stays on task.

“These data dashboards make our progress and each institution’s progress public. This encourages everyone to keep these priorities front and center. They also give institutions an opportunity to see what’s happening at other universities in the System and to learn more about what’s working to move the needle,” said UNC System Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy Andrew Kelly.

Stellar Ambitions

Renowned cognitive scientist and linguist Mark Turner explained that storytelling “is the fundamental instrument of thought.  Rational capacities depend upon it.  It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining.” 

Taken as a whole, the UNC System data dashboards outline a gripping plot, one that imagines and plans for more fulfilling and prosperous lives for more North Carolinians.

Poking around the dashboards will give anyone with a vested interest in the UNC System an opportunity to peek at the unfolding story. The University’s hard work is ongoing, so the 2019 update is only one chapter, ending on a cliffhanger.

But the early evidence is compelling: all indicators point to a happy ending.

 

Thursday, March 21, 2019

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