Ignoring Facts Is Not a Strategy

It is an optimal time for the University of North Carolina system to come up with a new overall strategic plan that will shift directions to reflect the new realities and new ways of thinking that have emerged since the plan was last revised in 2007.

Yet it appears that the committee convened to forge a new plan is being deliberately led to continue policies based on misleading data and stale beliefs. This is especially true regarding UNC’s role in the state economy.

The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions, which met for first time on Wednesday, September 26, is comprised of 32 academic and business leaders and UNC staff. It received its commission from the UNC Board of Governors, and is chaired by UNC system president Thomas Ross.

Ross established the committee’s agenda; he made “”setting degree attainment goals responsive to state needs” his highest priority, suggesting that having more graduates will help attract businesses to the state. He also made it clear that he intends for those attainment goals to be ambitiously high, and that he expected others to draw the same conclusions he has: “Almost all of the data you will hear later predicts that we will need more educated people” he said in his introductory remarks.

The latter remark was true, but only because the “experts” providing the data made no mention of the ample and growing body of evidence that there is no realistic demand for more college graduates.

There are two major conflicting perspectives on university degree attainment and economic development. Ross expressed one of them, the belief that colleges and universities must produce more graduates to compete in the changing global economy. This view has long held sway with UNC’s governing boards and administrations.

The other is that our economy has already achieved sufficiently high levels of educational attainment, and that too much higher education is unfocused and unproductive. It poses an obvious threat to those who hold the first view, and is therefore frequently ignored in policy circles such as Board of Governors meetings.

Certainly, Ross and the committee ignored it. He declared that he is “hoping to follow” the example of Virginia, which “statutorily” mandated a dramatic increase in state residents who enroll and graduate. There is a 2011 Virginia law that calls for the state to produce an additional 100,000 bachelors degree-holders over a 15-year period by increasing enrollment and improving graduation rates.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s additional degree quotas resemble the sort of “central planning” with specific goals of production that was the hallmark of failed communist dictatorships across the globe, especially the former Soviet Union. It is hard to see how following suit will help the economy of North Carolina.

Furthermore, studies show that an absurdly high percentage of recent college graduates  (as many as half) cannot find fulltime work, and pushing more young people into college will hardly improve that situation.

Yet none of the speakers brought in to inform the committee mentioned the glut of recent graduates. One, education consultant Dennis Jones, was a particularly unabashed supporter of increasing educational attainment levels. He was the primary consultant behind Oregon’s 40-40-20 program, which aims to have 40 percent of the adult population with bachelor’s degrees, 40 percent with two-year associate’s degrees, and 20 percent with high school diplomas. It is a goal divorced from economic reality: unnecessary, extravagant, and inevitably counterproductive.

Yet Jones took it even further by praising foreign educational leaders who hope to have 100 percent of their population with postsecondary credentials.

Jones was even challenged by a committee member for providing information in a confusing or misleading manner. He presented a graph revealing ethnic minorities’ lower average educational attainments but, as the committee member noted, he left out Asian-Americans, who have the highest education attainment of all groups, including whites.

Jones dismissed the need to include Asians, saying that he was merely “drawing comparisons.” Yet such selective use of data is not always harmless when important policies are under discussion—doing so can seriously alter the discussion. In this example, including Asians in the data set undermines arguments that other minorities’ low attainments are due to discrimination or a lack of government attention. It changes the debate about minorities and education from one of government action to one involving non-government factors, such as culture.

More objective information is needed for the committee to arrive at sensible decisions. At least, that’s what was intended. Fred Eshelman, a BOG member who is on the advisory committee and chairs a second strategic committee made up of university system employees, has insisted that he intends to have the strategic planning process proceed with “no preconceived notions” and to be  “data-driven.”

It is hard to see how the information provided to the advisory committee at its first meeting accomplishes that. It is not as if alternative information is unavailable, nor is it limited to conservative or higher education reform circles. In fact, there is just such a study on educational attainment and economic development recently completed by the Global Research Institute (GRI) at UNC-Chapel Hill that questions the need to produce more college graduates. And that report is known to at least one committee member. Keith Crisco, the current North Carolina secretary of commerce, participated in a series of discussion groups conducted by the GRI discussing higher education’s role in the economy that led to the report.

The authors of the GRI report, Chapel Hill professors Peter Coclanis and Daniel Gitterman, call for young people to pursue more varied and more individualized routes into the workforce than reflexively going to college immediately after high school. This includes getting them to survey their entire range of options, to consider their options at an earlier age, and to choose alternate careers that require vocational or technical training.

Such due diligence by high school students may end the current “jobs mismatch,” in which many high-paying technical and skill trade positions go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants while over 30 percent of recent college graduates work in jobs that require no postsecondary education.

Coclanis and Gitterman even use some of the same underlying data that Jones used, from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. While they highlight the Center’s projection that 59 percent of all jobs in North Carolina in 2018 will require some postsecondary training, as did Jones (and it must be emphasized that such forecasts are at best tenuous estimates), they did not agree with Jones’ clarion call for greater college attendance.

They noted that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 57 percent of North Carolina’s adult population already has some postsecondary education. Even if one is to accept the Georgetown Center’s rather presumptuous estimate that future demand will require 59 percent of the workforce to have postsecondary credentials, it appears there are currently enough people (approximately) pursuing higher education to fill that demand. The problem may be that too many of those people are enrolled in the wrong programs or are not completing their programs.

It is most likely a problem of information. Too many people still cling to a perception that any college degree is a sure path to a good job, and that other options are inferior. But that is no longer true. We have too many people seeking academic degrees with no added employment potential at community colleges or second- or third-tier colleges and universities—often because they falsely think any degree will improve their job prospects—and not enough people entering some non-degree technical programs even though doing so will almost assuredly open up well-paid opportunities.

Furthermore, an academic college degree takes a minimum of three or four years to complete; many of the in-demand technical or vocational programs can be finished within one year. We may simply need to start promoting technical training and other options in the high schools and community colleges more to bring order to the labor market.

Strategic plan committee members should be permitted to decide for themselves which approach is more reasonable: Jones’s, which calls for excessively high levels of educational attainment with no relation to the existing job market, or the GRI study, which realistically takes note of the fact that, if 59 percent of the anticipated workforce requires postsecondary training, 41 percent will not.

But Ross is leaving very little time for discussion with an extremely aggressive timetable set for the strategic plan, with only three more meetings before a finished report is due in January of 2013. Let us hope that cooler and more deliberate heads on the committee prevail and demand some serious, two-sided investigation of the issues before the state gets an expensive mistake rammed down its throat.