What Does the State Get For Its University Buck?
Ah, it’s biennial budget season in North Carolina. And one can hear the ruckus from miles away, especially now that public higher education is on the proverbial chopping block.
For Republicans, larger cuts to higher education are about getting the state’s financial house in order while allowing a regressive sales tax extension to expire. For Democrats, preserving more of the higher education budget fits with their education agenda and helps uphold the ideal of a “free” college education articulated in the N.C. constitution.
Unfortunately, through the rhetorical haze, both sides seem to be missing the broader point: The future of the state depends on the ability of citizens from different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels to access increasingly advanced levels of low-cost, high-quality and student-focused postsecondary education.
State leaders should therefore focus less on partisan bickering and more on transforming public higher education to efficiently meet these needs.
Numerous studies show that postsecondary education is positively related to individual lifetime earnings, health and happiness and is critical to economic development. Certainly the UNC and N.C. community college systems have played an important role in raising education levels and prosperity within the state — and both are highly regarded within the United States and abroad.
While the accomplishments of these systems should be celebrated, government and education leaders must now focus on emerging global and state challenges and their implications for public higher education.
Specifically, higher education should accommodate the needs of an increasingly diverse population, focus on learning outcomes, and do so at a relatively low cost.
According to 2008 U.S. Department of Education data relating to higher-education costs to both taxpayers and students — as opposed to the “sticker price” — the approximate per-year cost of a community college education in North Carolina is $7,500.
Bachelor’s and master’s institutions (e.g., UNC Wilmington and UNC Asheville) cost an average of $14,440 per year. Research universities (e.g., UNC and NCSU) cost an average of $20,010 — the fourth- and seventh-most-expensive in the United States, respectively.
Current budget arguments often presume that education quality is directly tied to funding. Though there are few good metrics to understand quality among colleges and universities, well-respected university systems in California, Texas and Georgia — diverse, rapidly-growing states — grant four-year degrees far less expensively. Interstate indicators relating to five-year graduation rates and minority and low-income access are also discouraging.
Many of the aforementioned costs are driven by “mission creep” among bachelor’s and master’s colleges aggressively pursuing ways — and indeed being encouraged by policymakers — to become more research-oriented. The drive for schools to attract federal and industry research dollars and publish in academic journals may result in better reputations and higher rankings in publications such as U.S. News and World Report.
Unfortunately, it is also at odds with the state’s need to improve education and skill levels among individuals of diverse ages and backgrounds in an increasingly challenging budget environment.
These trends are often observed in large undergraduate classes: The average student often does not receive instruction or assistance directly from busy faculty members who must increasingly worry about fundraising, conducting research and publishing.
Community colleges have long served as open, low-cost education gateways but often lack the resources and advanced technical capacity present at larger, four-year institutions. Furthermore, advances in online learning are fundamentally challenging the traditional notion of college education.
In short, North Carolina’s current higher education “business model,” including its institutions, policies and funding mechanisms, may not be capable of meeting the evolving postsecondary education needs of the state. As many other nations and states race ahead, it’s time for leadership in N.C. that asks and specifically answers the question: What are the people of the state getting in return for public funding of higher education?
In the past, the answer was the opportunity to pursue a subsidized degree. In the future, it should be ensuring that taxpayers have access to increasingly advanced levels of low-cost, quality education that emphasize learning outcomes, not necessarily time in a classroom or the number of articles a faculty member publishes.
Adapting unique, traditional higher education institutions and policies to modern needs and requirements is a complicated venture requiring nonpartisan leadership, clear goals and metrics, and courage to question the status quo.
Given the current political and economic environment, substantive higher education reform may be viewed as an unlikely luxury. But the people of North Carolina cannot afford anything less.
Chris Hayter, a Moore County native, is now director of innovation and sustainability at the New York Academy of Sciences and advises state and international governments on higher education and economic development issues.
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