A university president says that America is “losing her way” in higher education

Speaking at a Raleigh, North Carolina,  luncheon on March 10, UNC system president Tom Ross warned of “dangerous” trends in higher education today, especially in North Carolina. He pointed to insufficient state funding that prevents students from attending college or saddles them with stifling tuition debt and a focus on making colleges and universities into  “factories” that “only train people for the workforce.”

More broadly, he declared that “America is losing her way with regard to higher education.”

Ross, who has overseen the University of North Carolina’s 16 college campuses since 2011, gave a “state of higher education” address to about 100 people at the inaugural National Public Affairs Forum sponsored by City Club Raleigh. He didn’t pull punches.

“We hear constant calls to drive out costs and produce more product at less cost. There is far less talk about academic quality and excellence, and more about operational efficiency,” Ross said—and immediate post-graduation earnings.

While acknowledging the need for accountability metrics, he said there are “greater benefits” to consider, such as students learning how to think for themselves, work collaboratively with others, to foster a value for lifelong learning, and to communicate more effectively.

Furthermore, Ross doesn’t believe that North Carolina spends sufficiently on its university system.

“I have managed one budget cut after another, including the largest in UNC’s long history—more than $400 million in 2011 alone,” and faces another this year, Ross said.

Gov.  Pat McCrory’s budget, released last week, proposes $2.621 billion in 2015-16, compared with $2.646 billion in the 2014-15 authorized budget. This is a $26 million reduction, or just under 1 percent. The 2016-17 proposal is for $2.632 billion, $14 million less than the 2014-15 budget, or about half of 1 percent less.

Ross warned that such stringency is “a dangerous trend for North Carolina, and one we must address,” or risk the flight of the best faculty to private industry, taking federal research dollars and associated jobs with them.

Ross did concede that North Carolina has shown stronger support than other states towards their public university systems, and that North Carolina’s in-state tuition rates at all campuses are in the lowest quartile among their public peers, often being the lowest or next to lowest.

Still, he said, with only limited exceptions, “our faculty and staff have had only two small salary increases, averaging about 1.5 percent, during the last six years.”

Public and private universities annually attract $2 billion in research grants to North Carolina, Ross said, with UNC campuses accounting for $1.2 billion of that. Those research dollars support 22,000 jobs across the state, and have led to the spinoff of 135 companies, including SAS, Cree, and Quintiles.

“I have been asked repeatedly by some policy-makers why our faculty conduct research,” said Ross. “Why are they not in the classroom teaching? At its core, research is another form of hands-on learning.”

Ross said by putting the cost of public higher education out of reach for many students, and failing to invest in faculty and staff, “we will be unable to develop the talent our businesses will need in the years ahead.” Without increasing access to higher education, America cannot compete in a global marketplace, he said. The UNC system has set a goal of increasing from the present 28 percent to 32 percent of the population having at least a bachelor’s degree by 2018, and being a top-10 educated state by 2025.

But other influential people have a somewhat different view.

“You look at what North Carolina does with taxpayer dollars for universities versus other states,” said Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, the North Carolina senator who heads both the  Education/Higher Education Committee and the Finance Committee of the Senate. “We’re doing about all we can do, and we’re doing about all the taxpayers can afford to do.”

While Tillman agreed that some of Ross’s concerns are valid, he said, “He’s missing the point. The No. 1 factor is can I get a job and make a living so that I can sustain my family, and be a contributing member to the society? Can I get an education that will lead to a job, or have I got an education for education’s sake?”

“There better be some return on investment because he’s spending taxpayer dollars,” Tillman said.

Nor is Tillman confident about the success of the UNC system.

“Although their enrollment rate has gone up, their graduation rate is poor. They take six years to graduate when it ought to take four, and their dropout rate is high,” Tillman said. He believes universities should limit enrollment to students with a 3.0 G.P.A. or higher.

“You’ve got to look at the cost to the parents and the students. I think we’re missing the boat on a segment of kids that should be channeled to the community colleges”—to be trained for well-paying jobs rather than pushing them to seek four-year degrees, Tillman said.

Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C., who has spent more than 50 years in the higher education environment, also had a mixed reaction. Vedder, who has spoken before the UNC Board of Governors in the past, described the UNC system as “a jewel.” But he said Ross’s appeal to the global competitiveness defense for more funding is “the standard line” of higher education apologists.

“My solution to the problem, I think, would be very different from that of the president of the University of North Carolina,” he said. “There are jobs out there that are respectable jobs, some of them are high-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree,” Vedder said.

An average welder can make more than $100,000 a year with a high school degree and one year of technical school, Vedder pointed out. Walmart is the nation’s largest employer, but it’s unlikely even 5 percent of its 1 million employees need a college degree to do their jobs. And Walmart is representative of “a whole host” of other employers, Vedder said.

Indeed, there are perverse incentives to pumping out more college graduates, Vedder said, invoking Say’s Law of economics, which asserts that supply creates its own demand.

“Employers seeing this large army of unemployed college kids are now slapping on requirements for their jobs, saying bachelor’s degree required,” even though the job does not require college education, Vedder said. More than 15 percent of today’s taxi drivers have a bachelor’s degree, compared to fewer than 1 percent in 1970.

It is true that student college costs have risen over time, the largest proportion of students in modern times is underemployed when they graduate, there is $1.3 trillion in outstanding student loan debt burdening many graduating students, and state higher education appropriations the past decade remain stagnant or fell, Vedder said.

“But the reality is most of the problems in higher education are the universities’ own doing, and are related also to the pernicious effects of the federal student loan program and student financial assistance programs, which have had just devastatingly negative effects on higher ed, contributing to costs of higher ed, contributing to more and more students being turned out who are unable to get decent jobs,” Vedder said.

“Why should we be funding higher ed more,” he said, “when a large proportion of the graduates are living in their parents’ basements because they can’t get a decent job?”