Big Changes Bring Big Questions for UNC

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Greensboro News & Record on April 9.

Two years into the presidency of Erskine Bowles, the University of North Carolina (UNC) system appears ready to make some sweeping changes.

Speaking before the March meeting of the Board of Governors, members of UNC’s general administration made two proposals. First, they suggested adding a system of branch campuses, initially in the form of joint projects with community colleges or by renting classroom space in commercial buildings. Second, they intend to take a stronger role in the creation and elimination of degree programs by the 16 member universities, indicating they would favor expanding existing programs or starting collaborative programs over the establishment of new, independent ones.

These changes are major. What are we to make of them?

The first plan is almost uniformly positive. A typical branch campus will initially feature two-plus-two programs, in which students spend the first two years attaining an associate’s degree from the community college, and then take classes from university professors at the community college or at a “storefront” classroom to complete the final two years of their four-year bachelor’s degree. Creating branches makes education more accessible to students who wish to remain in their local community without being forced to make extravagant long-distance commutes. It’s especially valuable for the growing older student population.

Aligning the four-year schools with the community college system should also reduce the cost of education — for the state as well as for the students. In addition, the universities can provide some struggling community colleges with financial help and expertise.

The move toward greater centralization is more complicated, however. A centralized approach does offer promise for improved management – it can be very useful in eliminating costly redundancies in degree programs. Yet it has its own perils, particularly in light of the new emphasis on expanding the university system’s role in economic development.

UNC vice president Alan Mabe emphasized the positive side of greater control, including the potential for collaborative programs to aid in economic development. For example, Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) has a doctoral pharmacy program in a partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill. Ten to fifteen pharmacy students enroll each year. They receive their degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, but attend classes at Elizabeth City, in an area with considerable unmet demand for pharmacists. The hope is, according to Mabe, that after performing their required clinical work in the area, some students might choose to stay after graduation.

Yet such targeted development schemes must be eyed with suspicion.This is a very different situation than a two-plus-two elementary education program at Coastal Carolina Community College, in conjunction with UNC-Wilmington. That program is intended to alleviate a teacher shortage in Onslow County, and offers residents who do not wish to leave the area a chance to remain while pursuing their degrees. There is a very high probability that they will choose to work locally upon graduation.

The pharmacy program at Elizabeth City, however, brings in people with no ties to the community, and provides them with the skills to find employment elsewhere. Perhaps a few will get their initial job in the northeast part of the state. Once armed with a pharmacy degree and several years of experience in a profession with high national demand, however, they can easily find jobs at much higher salaries in more prosperous regions with more amenities. With such options available, few people will choose to remain in a remote, depressed area for long. If it turns out that few graduates of the program settle in the Elizabeth City area, the program will merely become another redistribution of money from one part of the state to another, more like an entitlement program rather than the answer to a long-term labor shortage.

There is still the possibility that these two policy changes may turn out to be sensible, low-cost solutions to help the UNC system deal with the crush of new students anticipated with North Carolina’s projected population growth. Certainly, the branch campuses offer great potential to help the state deal with labor shortages and perhaps increase economic growth. But one should be wary of attempts to micromanage a large system like UNC, let alone a state economy, with the sort of intensive central planning and concentration of power sought by the general administration. If the ECSU-UNC pharmacy program and similar economic development plans fail to deliver their desired results, will the general administration be able to reverse their course? Or will the North Carolina landscape be dotted with costly but failed good intentions?