North Carolina's proposed budget includes a request for public and private university networks to study the feasibility of creating at least one optometry school in the state.
Aspiring optometrists currently have to leave North Carolina for their education.
The legislature based the request on data from UNC's Sheps Center. It shows that North Carolina is on par with the national average as far as the number of optometrists overall. But as of 2012, there were 13 rural counties in North Carolina that have no optometrists at all.
Researcher Erin Fraher said the Center has not yet gauged statewide demand, or whether students who leave the state to study optometry ever come back.
“We know that health professionals who are educated in-state tend to stay in-state,” Fraher said.
“We also know that where you educate folks really matters. So, if you put training programs out into rural communities, you are more likely to get health professionals to stick there. So I think those are the types of analyses that we would look at.”
North Carolina State Optometric Society President Charles Sikes said he isn't convinced the state needs an optometry school. But he acknowledged it's an expensive education to pursue, so he thinks the state should invest in it somehow.
“Anything that improves the accessibility of optometric education to highly qualified students is a benefit to our profession,” Sikes said.
The UNC Board of Governors and North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, Inc. have until December to turn in their own data, financial review and needs assessments to the General Assembly.