The Twelve Reforms of Christmas, Part II

I hope you had a merry Christmas! Here is Part II of our three-part Christmas policy reform wish list. The first four were posted earlier this week. Now for four more:

5. Halt the goal of 32 percent college attainment in North Carolina.

In November, the University of North Carolina Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions set a goal for state bachelor’s degree attainment of 32 percent (that is, 32 percent of adults in the state should have bachelor’s degrees; the figure is about 28 percent now). The UNC Board of Governors may turn the goal into policy in January.

But aiming for 32 percent degree attainment is not a worthwhile pursuit.

Reaching this goal could mean increasing the ranks of students well beyond those who want to attend and who are prepared to attend. Judging from the high dropout rate at many universities in the UNC system—Fayetteville State’s six-year graduation rate is 31 percent—there are already a lot of students who would be better off entering the workforce directly or starting at a community college. For this reason, and others, the Pope Center has repeatedly argued for limiting the growth of enrollment in the UNC system.

Furthermore, the goal is of dubious benefit to the state. If we spend the resources required to increase bachelor’s degree attainment to 32 percent, how much better off will we really be? As Board of Governors member Fred Eshelman pointed out in his presentation at the November meeting, studies suggest that only 19 percent of jobs actually required college degrees in 2010. North Carolina’s economy is not doing very well, but not because we have too few college graduates.

Some students who fail to graduate could be encouraged to complete their schooling, as the committee discussed at its November meeting. Spurring people who have completed half or more of the credits needed to finish their degrees makes some sense—the cost to the state for one such student to complete his or her degree is less than it is for a high school graduate. These prospective graduates include veterans leaving the military, community college transfers, and adults who have partially completed a college degree. But helping them should not be based on arbitrary goals. 

Philanthropist and Pope Center benefactor Art Pope criticized the 32 percent goal as “central planning,” and he’s right. It’s expensive, arbitrary, and likely to invite grade inflation and shoddy work in order to meet it.

6. Provide remedial education at community colleges only.

Remedial classes are intended to help students “catch up” and become college-ready. They don’t count toward a degree, they don’t count for credit, and they are expensive, often requiring intensive one-on-one instruction. They don’t belong at four-year universities. 

“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),” wrote Jay Schalin on the Pope Center site a few years ago. “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.”

Community colleges educate students at a much lower cost to students and axpayers. If college-bound students need remedial education, they should head to community colleges first. And if they aren’t prepared for community college, they should consider not attending college until they are ready.

7. Base financial aid on need and merit.

A large and growing number of students in the UNC system aren’t prepared for college and are not really interested in attending. They aren’t doing themselves or taxpayers a favor by being there. Many go into debt, are subsidized by taxpayers, and drop out before they can reap any of the benefit of college education. Such students currently receive a large share of the state’s appropriations for financial aid.

To prevent this waste, the legislature should impose minimal academic standards on the millions of dollars of need-based aid given by the state government. While the aid should go primarily to low-income students, it should go to those low-income students who have shown by their test scores and high school grades that they have a good likelihood of succeeding in college. That will ensure that state tax dollars are being used wisely and will help some young people make better choices.

8. Review faculty workloads and set higher standards.

Between 1988 and 2004, teaching loads for professors at research universities fell by about 44 percent, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, as tabulated by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (see page 117 of this PDF). Even the teaching load at private liberal arts colleges fell by 32 percent over the same period. 

That national trend has been reflected in the University of North Carolina system. The legislature attempted to stop the falling with a 1995 law instructing the Board of Governors to monitor workloads. The Board of Governors set a standard of two classes a semester (four a year) for the most research-intensive universities such as UNC -Chapel Hill and NC State.

But even if that standard is met—and sometimes it isn’t, as a Pope Center review of workloads concluded—teaching only two courses per year seems extremely low for some subjects.

The argument has been that professors need to spend more time on their research. But the academic scholarship that we’re getting in exchange is often of dubious value. Even if it is of high quality, often it languishes in obscure journals, scarcely read even by colleagues (see Mark Bauerlein’s analysis of humanities scholarship for details on readership). It is hard to justify humanities professors teaching fewer than two courses per semester, but that is the case.

Universities’ two academic missions, the dissemination of knowledge (i.e., teaching) and the production of more knowledge (i.e., research), both have value. But there is currently excessive institutional bias favoring research. Promotions, tenure, and national rankings depend on it. That bias must be held in check. One way to do it is to keep the teaching function from being neglected through enforcing reasonable teaching loads.

(Editor’s note: The final four items on the list can be found here.)