Finally, a Sober Appraisal of North Carolina’s Public Universities

North Carolina’s public university system is a multi-billion-dollar organization that impacts virtually every region of North Carolina—socially and economically. It employs more than 47,000 people across 17 campuses, making it by far the largest state entity. As such, it is essential for policymakers and taxpayers to know whether it is efficiently managed and whether the 220,000 students attending UNC schools are succeeding.

The Pope Center’s latest research report goes a long way toward answering those questions. The State of the State University 2015: Critical Facts about the University of North Carolina System analyzes a decade of data on, among other things, tuition, graduation rates, student debt levels, and administrative growth and salaries. The resulting picture shows minimal progress in some key areas and cause for concern in several others.

For example, North Carolina has the fourth-highest per-student state funding in the country. The UNC system has been well-funded since its inception in 1971; today, its overall annual budget is roughly $9.5 billion, with about $2.6 billion coming from the state. Despite that abundance, tuition and fees have gone up by 65 percent in ten years. Moreover, student aid packages have not kept up with those increases.

As the State of the State report reveals, results of these trends include an increase in the percentage of students with loan debt, an increase in the inflation-adjusted amount of such debt, and an increase in loan default rates. Unfortunately, in recent years, some universities have added insult to injury by spending money on dubious construction projects and by beefing up their athletics departments, the costs of which are often passed on to students.

Although UNC students’ average debt levels are below the national average, which is hovering above $30,000, that fact may provide little comfort for, say, the East Carolina University student who graduates with an average debt load of $28,312 and limited job prospects in the Greenville area. Furthermore, while debt is troubling enough for those who graduate, we know that it can be downright debilitating for those who do not.

Six of the 16 universities in the UNC system—Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, NC A&T, NC Central, UNC-Pembroke, and Winston-Salem State University—have 6-year graduation rates at or below 50 percent. Only 5 schools in the system have graduation rates above 70 percent. There are two ways to increase graduation rates on a large scale in the short run. One is to lower academic standards to make it easier to graduate—clearly an undesirable policy.

The other is not only obviously better but also less costly: increase admissions standards. After all, universities’ graduation rates reflect, to a large extent, the academic preparedness of entering students. The schools at which such students have high SAT scores and high school GPAs also have (relatively) high graduation rates, and vice versa. For instance, UNC-Chapel Hill, which has an entering freshman profile boasting an average SAT of 1300 and GPA of 4.63, has a 91 percent 6-year graduation rate, the highest in the state.

On the other end of the spectrum is Fayetteville State University (FSU), which has a 39.7 percent 6-year graduation rate. In 2014-15, FSU’s entering freshman class had an average SAT of just 890 and high school GPA of 3.2. Even though FSU and other UNC system schools have improved slightly over the years in terms of entering students’ academic backgrounds, it is clear that standards need to be raised much higher.

Besides, given the distorting effects of grade inflation at the high school level and questionable forthcoming changes to the SAT, maintaining current admissions standards could backfire at all schools, not just the least selective. It could become harder for universities to discern applicants’ true skill levels, increasing the likelihood that they will admit students unprepared for high-level coursework.

While The State of the State University 2015 offers plenty of insight into universities’ academic standards, it also sheds light on their spending priorities. First, despite contrary claims, faculty across the system are paid very well. The average faculty member earns almost 33 percent more than the average income earner in North Carolina, and most earn more than the national average for public university faculty.

Also, from 2003-04 to 2012-13, there was increased waste in the form of administrative bloat. That is, non-teaching staff increased 20.6 percent. As a result, today, non-instructional staff double the number of faculty at almost every campus. “Labor costs are the UNC system’s largest expense,” the report states. “That’s because the number of administrators and their pay have increased significantly in the last ten years—much more than the number and pay of faculty.”

The adverb “significantly” may actually be an understatement. The word “astronomically” may be more appropriate. That’s because there is a steadily growing class of top-level administrators in the system’s General Administration and at individual universities who make more than $100,000. Many more earn over $200,000.

Often, it is difficult to understand how some of them provide value to students. With an annual salary of $195,000, UNC-Chapel Hill’s chief diversity officer earns more than Governor Pat McCrory. And the thirty administrators working in NC State’s Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity take home, collectively, $1.85 million each year. Appalachian State’s bookstore manager takes home $140,448 per year; the art museum director at UNC-Greensboro, $124,395. 

Surprisingly, some university leaders seem oblivious to the impropriety of such administrative excesses. For instance, last fall the UNC system’s Board of Governors voted to increase the pay ranges for top administrators at the General Administration and, behind closed doors, voted to give chancellors pay raises. In light of the academic failings we’ve seen at some schools, it seems like that money could be better spent.

Many top-level university leaders and state politicians want to increase enrollment (which, by the way, increased by 20 percent over the last decade) and the percentage of North Carolinians with college degrees. But they should bear in mind that unless they confront the numerous issues raised by the Pope Center’s latest report, the future social and economic costs of pursuing such expansion may far outweigh the benefits.

The State of the State University 2015: Critical Facts about the University of North Carolina System is therefore a must-read for students, parents, taxpayers, and policymakers who want the University of North Carolina to achieve its highest potential—and its peak efficiency. Here’s hoping that, in 2016, North Carolina leaders, instead of sugarcoating the shortcomings identified in this report, choose instead to address them head on.

(Editor’s note: Click here to read the full report.)