New Report on Higher Ed Unduly Praises, Criticizes UNC

The report “Measuring Up 2000” makes North Carolina look good in some respects and bad in others. But before rushing to praise state policymakers where the grades are high or criticize them where the grades are low, we need to examine several questionable assumptions that undermine the validity of those grades.

Consider “Affordability,” where North Carolina receives its highest grade. High grades are awarded to states that heavily subsidize their higher education systems; low grades are awarded to states that don’t. There is an obvious value judgment here. It is assumed to be good policy to keep tuition and fees for students low, thus transferring much of the cost away from the students who directly use and benefit from the state colleges and universities. But is that indisputably true?

The morality of compelling taxpayers to pay for most of the cost of educational investments that benefit students, most of whose families can afford to pay for or finance the cost is questionable, to say the least. Affordability for students means more taxes for others.

Furthermore, high affordability doesn’t even appear to lead to high rates of college attendance. In the very affordable North Carolina, the “High School to College rate” is comparatively low (only 62% of the rate in the highest state). But in New Hampshire, which received an “F” for affordability, the High School to College rate is 79%, and in high-tuition Pennsylvania (which received a “C”), the rate is 80%. Thus, high subsidization doesn’t necessarily mean high college attendance.

At the other end of the grading scale, North Carolina did poorly in Participation. The reason for the low grade is the very point made above — that a relatively low percentage of students choose to attend college. But it does not follow that a low percentage here is a bad thing. North Carolina has many rural, agricultural areas where a college degree is simply not a productive investment. States are not identical in their economic profiles and there is no reason to assume that a higher college-going rate is necessarily better than a lower one. Individuals decide for themselves, given their own circumstances and expectations, what the ideal kind and amount of education and training is. Low college participation, therefore, is not a sign of failure; it is a result of human and geographic differences.

North Carolina also received a low grade for Benefits, suggesting that, despite the state’s huge expenditure on its university and community college systems (our per capita spending on higher education is among the highest in the U.S.), we ought to do more. A look at the criteria used to assign the Benefits grade, however, leads to the conclusion that this grade is meaningless.

One of the criteria is the percentage of adults who have a bachelor’s degree or higher. North Carolina scores rather low on this measure, which is not surprising given that the state also has a low going-to-college rate. As argued above, however, a higher percentage is not necessarily better than a lower one. The report offers the unsubstantiated idea that the low degree holding percentage “substantially impairs the state’s economy,” but the truth is that North Carolina’s economic growth has far outpaced many states where a far higher percentage of adults hold college degrees. New Jersey, for example, has one of the highest percentages, but lags behind the national average for growth in Gross State Product whereas North Carolina is well above the national average. Here the report again makes the mistake of assuming that more years of formal education automatically leads to higher productivity.

That assumption is made explicit in the next criterion, namely Increased Income from Education. The report here gives states demerits for having low percentages of college-educated people by assuming that such states are “losing” income compared to the amounts they would have if more residents held college degrees. While it is true on average that people with college degrees earn higher incomes than do those without them, it does not follow that people who haven’t chosen to invest the time and money required for a college degree would be earning higher incomes if only they had. But since there are still many non-college fields of work for which there is strong demand, it is quite rational for some people to decide that earning a college degree would be a poor investment.

Another dubious criterion in grading a state on Benefits is voting. If a high percentage of the population votes, that is treated as a benefit. Besides failing to offer any evidence that having higher voter turnout is a benefit (exactly how is high-turnout Montana better off than low-turnout Arizona?), the report also fails to demonstrate any connection between voting behavior and education. It observes that Minnesota has a very high college-degree-holding percentage and also a high voting percentage. But that hardly proves a link between higher education and a proclivity to vote. Arkansas, with a very low college-degree-holding percentage has a higher voting percentage than does New Jersey, which has a very high college-degree-holding percentage. High rates of voting may be beneficial, but if there is any reason to assume that it’s a benefit that comes from higher education, it is not shown in the report.

Instead of congratulating ourselves on a high grade in Affordability or hastening to enact some new program to deal with the supposed problem shown by our low grades in Participation and Benefits, North Carolinians should forget about the low grades and worry about the high one.