Five reforms the UNC board should implement this school year

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the Raleigh News & Observer on August 31.)

As the academic year begins, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, now with a new chairman, John Fennebresque, must make some choices.

The university system faces real problems: It costs too much; its academic quality suffers from grade inflation, the absence of a core curriculum and in some cases biased teaching; it is adding administrative personnel rather than reducing them; and the specter of athletic problems still hangs over the flagship.

This board, more reform-minded than past boards, must show that it can tackle those problems without arousing the enmity that has shelved reforms in other states, such as Texas (where a regent may be impeached) and at the University of Virginia (where the president was fired and then reinstated).

The board has already asserted its independence in small ways, such as voting to cap the percentage of tuition that goes to need-based aid and adopting a stronger plan for evaluating professors after they have tenure.

We recommend five big steps that can be taken right away.

1 It’s all about enrollment: Few people realize it, but most of the $2.6 billion or so that the university system receives from the General Assembly each year is already set before the first legislative committee holds a meeting. Why? It is determined primarily by enrollment.

Universities get more money if enrollment goes up, so simply growing is still the best way to get state appropriations for your campus.

The Board of Governors must change the formula that relates appropriations to the number of students. Appropriations should be tempered by performance on measurements such as graduation rates, student success on tests such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment and cost per degree.

Will the board put teeth behind talk about performance funding?

2 Minimum admissions: The UNC system has gradually raised its minimum standards for admission to schools in the system. Until five years ago, some campuses were virtually open-admission. Now, to enter any UNC school, a student’s SAT score must be 800 (total verbal and math) and GPA must be 2.5.

This is not very high. The College Board (which writes the SATs) says that any student whose total score is under 1030 is likely to have trouble doing college-level work. We already know that many students aren’t ready for college. That’s one reason why the overall graduation rate at UNC is only 60 percent over six years.

Raising the minimum SAT score to, say, 900 would have ramifications. Some schools would lose more students while community colleges would gain. This would be painful for those schools, and the board would have to deal with the impact.

But does the board want to improve the system or perpetuate the sad and costly process of admitting students who will never get a diploma?

3 A moratorium on tuition and fee increases: We respect UNC system President Tom Ross and the board for freezing tuition this fall. The state of North Carolina has taken a stand, embedded in the state constitution, to keep the price of college reasonable. Yet until now tuition and fees have gone up by 5.8 percent per year since 2002.

To keep tuition down, the board of governors must control costs. One relatively noncontroversial way is to centralize functions currently conducted by individual campuses, such as awarding financial aid and managing personnel benefits.

There are other ways to reduce spending. The system is ripe for rethinking faculty teaching loads, subsidized on-campus centers and the use of federal overhead receipts

4 Review of general education: The board’s code says, “The Board of Governors shall determine the functions, educational activities, and academic programs of the constituent institutions.” The board has a responsibility, especially, to monitor the quality of general education – the courses students take whatever their major.

The Pope Center has studied the general education programs of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. Students choose their own courses. Should they be allowed to choose “The Ethnohistory of Native American Women” over, say, “American Constitutional History since 1865”? The first course may be fine but not for general education.

5 Hire some help: The board should hire an executive director or secretary to help it manage and obtain information. Members are busy people, and they need a source of independent information to help them make difficult decisions.