Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center shares a conversation with outgoing UNC System President Margaret Spellings.

The Martin Center sat down with President Spellings to discuss We Promise and NC Promise, and her thoughts on the future of higher education—in North Carolina and nationally.

We Promise and NC Promise are big changes in terms of access; do you see affordability and access as your legacy at UNC?

Part of; that, coupled with accountability and transparency and data—where we’re super clear about what we would want to have happened—closing the gaps between our low-income students and disadvantaged students in terms of access and completion and all those sorts of things. Access, affordability, and accountability I would say are my three pillars.

The We Promise campaign was something that the legislature asked us to do and something, in my humble opinion, that we should do more of: and that is, market our offerings and what a great deal NC Promise is for students. …

Confidence in higher education is low as these polls show, and you’ve certainly seen your share of turbulence. Higher ed is obviously going through some changes; what do you see going on in the future?

There is a lot in that question, the first is: people do believe in higher education and they do believe that it’s the key to a successful and prosperous life. We’ve got some polling data that we’ll release fairly soon from Gallup that says that people—a high percentage, somewhere in the 80s—think that higher education is key to a better life; they buy into that proposition. But higher education is under stress, pressure, and change—like pretty much every area of American life. People want it, yes affordably, but they also want it conveniently for themselves because we’re in a 24/7 world and the non-traditional student is becoming the traditional student.

These are students who have families, children, jobs—we’re all a nation of lifelong learners now. Perhaps you’ve been involved in manufacturing, and now you want to come in and retool your career and become more tech-savvy. All of those things are changing and that means that higher education has to be more adaptable to people. Maybe when you went to college, you had to go Monday through Thursday between 10 and 2 p.m.—and take it or leave it. Now, we have to be more available through technology and in many other ways. So higher ed, like everything, is under pressure.