A Common Sense Way to Save Education Dollars

[Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer on June 11, 2009.]

Shrinking tax revenues are forcing legislators and administrators to make many hard decisions about the University of North Carolina budget this year, but the shortfall also provides an excellent opportunity to make improvements.

One way the state could kill two birds with one stone is to halt UNC enrollment growth for the 2010-11 school year and beyond. Limiting enrollment at UNC for a few years at current levels (2009-10) would save taxpayers many millions of dollars and improve both the university and community college systems at the same time.

And nobody would be denied the opportunity to earn a UNC education. The community colleges are open to everybody, and UNC schools generally accept students who complete a two-year academic associate’s degree.

This win-win solution is simple: while state universities hold the line on enrollment by admitting fewer freshmen, community colleges can pick up the slack by admitting the rejected applicants, at lower cost. The community college students can then transfer into the university system when they have proven themselves by earning a two-year associate’s degree.

Not only will this reduce the cost to the state by taking advantage of the lower-cost community colleges, but it will also improve the university system’s graduation rates by being more selective about freshmen and will give the community colleges badly needed resources to improve their academics.

Penn State University has long employed such a two-tiered system, in which only the top applicants live at the main campus at State College as freshmen. A majority of freshmen and sophomores commute to one of the 19 branch campuses and switch to the main campus for their junior year.

In North Carolina, there is a huge difference between the subsidies to the universities and the community colleges. UNC received roughly $13,126 in state appropriations per full-time equivalent student for the 2006-7 school year. State and local appropriations to community colleges for each full-time equivalent student are approximately $5,344. For the sake of comparison and simplicity, let us say that the UNC per student subsidy is twice the subsidy for community college students.

For 2008-9, UNC received approximately $34 million for enrollment growth, and $44 million (proposed) on top of that ($78 million total) for 2009-10.

The two-year total is therefore $112 million. Had my proposed policy been in place two years ago, UNC would have received no enrollment growth money, while the community college system would have received $17 million the first year, and $39 million the second, a total of $56 million. The net savings to the state would have therefore been $56 million for the two-year period. And each year of the enrollment freeze, the annual savings would increase.

Students would also save money and make just as much progress toward the first two years of a bachelor’s degree at a good community college as they would at a university. At N.C. State, the average in-state undergraduate tuition and fees for 2007-8 were $5,002, while at Wake Tech, for 2008, a full-time student paid roughly $1,426.

This proposed policy also addresses the poor graduation rates at many UNC schools. Only 58.8 percent of freshmen entering the UNC system graduate at that same school within six years (63.4 percent at any school).

Many freshmen are either immature, academically unprepared or uncertain about what they want to do with their lives. By making freshman admissions more selective, freshmen who need time to “find themselves” or get their academic sea legs can do so in a less competitive environment in their hometowns.

Two or three years also make a big difference in maturity. Students who earn a two-year degree before transferring to universities graduate at a slightly higher rate (69 percent in six years) than all entering university freshmen, and at a much higher rate than the least academically prepared freshmen.

The university system started to address the graduation rate problem from a different angle, by exploring system-wide minimum requirements for admissions. However, the proposed standards were set so low (a 2.5 grade point high school average and a minimum SAT score of 800) that they would have had very little effect (changing the admissions status of less than one percent of applicants). Capping enrollment solves the problem without the need to guess how many students will meet the standards ahead of time.

Another thing this shift toward educating freshman and sophomores in their own communities will do is eliminate (or nearly so) the need for remedial education at the universities. Remedial classes are non-credit courses that are not counted toward attaining a degree. They are often more expensive than regular classes, since they require intensive one-on-one instruction. It makes no sense for students who are unprepared for university work to take classes from university professors with doctorates (or graduate students who are hard pressed for time). Much of the education a Ph.D. receives is beyond what is necessary to teach remedial classes—an experienced high school special education teacher with a bachelor’s or master’s degree might be better at remediation than somebody whose main focus is, say, literary criticism.

The university system and community colleges have been attempting to make the transfer process more “seamless.” To do so properly, the community colleges will need to raise their standards considerably to match those of the universities. If the universities limit their growth, the resources will become available to make the necessary improvements to the community colleges.

This is not to say the universities should not grow for any reason. Occasionally the demand for more seats in programs such as engineering or nursing that are important to the state’s economy will make some expansion desirable.

But the state cannot continue to raise the number of highly subsidized students who spend up to six years at the universities without getting a degree, or get a low-quality degree with bad grades that qualifies them to do nothing in the work force. It is especially not fair when there is a lower cost option available—and there is just such an option in the community college system. Shifting students and resources to the community colleges makes sense for everybody involved.