A Tale of Two State University Systems

Two states—North Carolina and Texas—are both eager to improve their public university systems so they can better serve their citizens in the twenty-first century. But they are acting on completely different visions of the future.

Last year, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina decided to find out what its citizens want from the university over the next few decades. The board created the UNC Tomorrow Commission, whose members traveled around the state, listening at public forums. The result was an expansive list of plans and goals, ranging well beyond college education to include K-12 education, economic growth, and applied research, to name just a few.

If it were carried out, this agenda would create a larger and more costly university system. That might provide some benefits, but whether UNC would better achieve its core mission of educating the citizens of North Carolina is not so clear. Whether the citizens of North Carolina would be willing to pay for all these services is uncertain, too.

In Texas, the approach is different. On May 21, Governor Rick Perry called together the regents of the six university systems in the state. He asked Jeff Sandefer, co-founder of the private Acton School of Business, to explain to them why today’s university systems—not just in Texas but also around the country—may not be sustainable for long.

Sandefer pointed out that costs are rising fast. Why? Because the most expensive faculty concentrate on their research activities, and therefore teach the fewest students. At the same time, educational quality is going down, largely for the same reason: Faculty are rewarded for research, not teaching. Meanwhile, for-profit schools are attracting students because, unlike the government’s university system, they offer affordable education geared to getting jobs.

The major point underlying the governor’s recommendations is that the best teachers, whether tenured or adjunct, should be rewarded for their teaching, through pay and public recognition.

In other words, the message going around Texas is that the university systems should improve the quality of teaching and reduce its cost.

That, however, is not the message in North Carolina. Out of the 31 pages in the UNC Tomorrow report, only three and a half are devoted to actual education within the university system (under the topic “Global Readiness).” The paper favors strengthening education, especially for skills such as writing and critical thinking, but it nowhere states how that is to be done. Most of the educational “strategies” are actually goals (such as “improve student efficiency in ‘soft skills’”); a task force will consider actual strategies.

Also the only discussion of costs in the UNC Tomorrow report has to do with the goal of keeping college affordable and increasing access for low-income students. The costs to taxpayers and middle-income students are left out.

In contrast, the Texas proposals are concrete ones (there are seven in all). The governor asked the regents (all of whom he appointed) to consider them. At the same time, he acknowledged that there would be no “one-size fits all” approach, and he encouraged discussion and debate.

If Texas is going to reward the best teachers, it must first identify them. The methods suggested emphasize student satisfaction, using evaluations of the kind students complete each semester. Student evaluations, however, would likely be weighted by a professor’s distribution of grades. Thus, if a teacher gave mostly A’s, his or her high evaluations would be discounted.

The teachers who were among the top 25 per cent in student ratings would qualify for awards. Depending on the number of students they teach, they could receive awards as high as $10,000. Because teachers would be rewarded for both high student evaluations and also for teaching more students, excellent teachers could increase their awards by teaching more students. A precedent for this is at the University of Oklahoma. There, a voluntary pilot program has been implemented in the colleges of business and engineering. In effect for three semesters, the program has given the best-rated teachers bonuses as high as $15,000 per semester.

Another of the governor’s proposals is to turn state appropriations into student vouchers; in 2004, the state government of Colorado did just that. Such an approach increases consumer sovereignty, making the colleges and universities compete for students rather than competing for political funding.

To some, these proposals may be shocking—especially the elevation of students to the level of customers—but the problems are shocking, too. A famous example is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute civics test  given for the past two years at a number of leading colleges across the country, asking students about basic topics such as the Bill of Rights, the War of 1812 and the American Revolution. At many colleges, the seniors did worse than the freshmen, and no school did very well.

As the proposals indicate, the governor of Texas believes that the best way for the university to help Texas citizens is to lower costs and boost educational quality. The governor believes that these policies will make Texas a magnet—especially for the best students and the best teachers.

The “breakthrough solutions” reflect some of the experience from Sandefer’s highly unusual (and highly rated) business school, which offers an MBA in one year, half the typical time required. At Acton, the students are king (except that they must spend 80 or 90 hours a week on their education). They evaluate their experience on a weekly basis, and they evaluate their faculty at the end of the year. The faculty member who is ranked the lowest can’t teach the next year (but might return later).

At Acton, students can obtain fellowships for their tuition, but when they graduate—if they agree that the school has been valuable to them—they must pay back 10 per cent of their salary each year until the $35,000 tuition is covered.

So the “student as customer” approach has been successful at one school.

At a later date, the Pope Center will examine the proposals in more detail. Meanwhile, the underlying question remains: Will this nation’s future be better enhanced by the expanding, centrally controlled approach adopted by North Carolina’s education leadership, or by the consumer-oriented, cost-reducing, quality-enhancing focus of Texas?