Something for Everyone Might Mean Less for All

Editor’s Note: A slightly shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on January 1, 2008.

Last February, UNC Board of Governors Chairman Jim Phillips convened the UNC Tomorrow Commission “to determine how the 16-campus university system can best meet the needs of the state and its people over the next 20 years.” Executive director Norma Houston and deputy director Tony Caravano served that mission well – they traveled the state, spoke to hundreds of residents and officials, and discovered what a great many North Carolina residents and businesses would like from the University of North Carolina.

There is an inherent problem in using a vast number of sources as input to a project, however. When you delve into every corner of the state to determine its needs, you are apt to get a very long list, far more than the state’s limited resources can handle. Once a request for action is acknowledged, it becomes difficult to eliminate it, due to compassion, political expediency, popularity, or need. Thus, many needs that are inefficient, too costly, unworkable, or conflicting wind up as recommendations. That seems to be the case with the UNC Tomorrow Commission’s final report.

For instance, a critical objective of the commission was to explore how the university system can prepare a competitive workforce in the emerging global economy. The commission strongly recommends improving the high school graduate rate. On the surface this is a laudable goal – upward social mobility has historically been a strength of our economy and culture.

Yet it conflicts with the anticipated job market. According to UNC Tomorrow’s own projections, 40 percent of the future job creation will consist of low-skilled jobs that do not require high school graduation. The report states that “the fastest expanding jobs have been those at the high end and the low end of the pay scale. Jobs with moderate rates of pay have been growing at the slowest pace.”

Currently the high school dropout rate is about 32 percent. The number of new jobs requiring only basic skills far exceeds the number of high school dropouts. Thus, kids who quit school because they aren’t interested academically might actually have job opportunities commensurate with their skills. Reducing the high school dropout rate means pushing marginal students into competition with better-prepared high school graduates for a shrinking percentage of medium-skilled jobs.

Furthermore, the report recommends exploring an increase in the compulsory schooling age from 16 to 18. Drop-outs often leave school because they are uninterested in learning; forcing them to remain in school will not change their inclinations. The presence of more disengaged students will only lessen a high school’s ability to focus on students who are interested in learning.

It might be better to lower the drop-out age limit to 14 or 15. This not only removes some of the most disruptive students from the classroom, but gives uninterested students a head start on entering the workforce, where they will learn some basic skills for success. There is also the possibility that their experience at the lower-skilled levels of the workforce will give them a new appreciation for education.

Another reason mentioned during some UNC Tomorrow sessions for reducing the drop-out rate is the idea that increasing high school graduates will result in many more college graduates. But it is unrealistic to expect large numbers of those least inclined to perform academically in high school to raise their performance to that of a college graduate.

The commission also indicates that North Carolina will need a significant increase in college students studying the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which are considered key to economic growth. Only 16 percent of American students major in these disciplines, while 50 percent of Chinese students do so.

Yet the report offers recommendations likely to suppress the number of highly skilled scientists and engineers. For example, it calls for “integrating the soft skills throughout the curricula.” Soft skills are skills that are pertinent to most professional jobs: communication, teamwork, leadership, etc. Time is scarce for STEM majors. Any additional material will reduce their focus on the demanding core studies, lengthening the amount of time it takes to complete their degrees.

The report even suggests that UNC “target scholarships to STEM majors to encourage them to major in education.” If there is a shortage of scientists, reducing their number in order to produce K-12 science teachers is self-defeating. Perhaps education majors should be encouraged to study science instead, or experienced scientists seeking a career change should be allowed an easier path to become teachers.

The UNC Tomorrow Commission calls for many things; how much it can achieve is another story. It wants high schools to reduce the dropout rate by concentrating on the lowest achievers, while increasing the number of students ready to tackle the most demanding college disciplines. It wants to increase college attendance among those least likely to graduate, while increasing the percentage of college students graduating with degrees in the most rigorous subjects. To achieve these conflicting goals simultaneously will require a large infusion of resources. And a large infusion of resources clashes with a proven way to ensure prosperity: a low-tax, low-regulatory business environment.

Jay Schalin is a writer for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.