The Higher Education Establishment’s Self-Interest Goes Unchecked—Again

Recently, a legislative proposal aimed at improving graduation rates at the University of North Carolina system’s 16 institutions was nixed due to vehement opposition from university leaders. In its place is a watered-down initiative that delays much-needed reform and emphasizes academic handholding rather than high academic standards and student readiness.

There is a strong connection between students’ high school GPAs and SAT scores and those students’ ability to perform well in—and finish—college. For instance, UNC-Chapel Hill, which boasts the highest entering student GPAs and SAT scores in the system, also has the highest six-year graduation rates in the system—consistently hovering near 90 percent.

But in the UNC system, Chapel Hill is an outlier. Only four other universities have graduation rates above 70 percent, and six schools with much less competitive entering student profiles have graduation rates at or below 50 percent. Schools that accept underprepared applicants set those students up for failure; many end up with poor grades and limited job prospects or dropping out with student loan debt and no clear way to repay it. The costs are borne by not only students, but the taxpayers who fund the system’s $9.5 billion annual operations.

Over the years, efforts have been made to ameliorate the problems of low graduation rates and low academic standards, but they’ve usually involved academic coddling, remediation, and other ultimately unsuccessful “interventions” with struggling students. University leaders, however, seem comfortable with this approach because it means that more students enroll in their institutions, which in turn means that they receive more enrollment funding from the state.

And state policymakers seem comfortable with that approach because they can avoid political fights (the six schools mentioned above, with graduation rates at or below 50 percent, are all historically black or minority universities; in recent years, implicit and explicit charges of racism have been levied at state politicians seeking to reform them). It also allows them to claim they’re working for the greater good by providing higher education opportunities—and access to the American Dream—for poor and low-income students from weak K-12 environments.

In the fall of 2015, the NC legislature challenged this status quo thinking. Lawmakers directed the UNC system and the state’s community college system to study the potential impact of what would be called the North Carolina Guaranteed Admissions Program (NC GAP).

The program would encourage students who meet the baseline admissions standards of one of the state’s public universities, but who are less competitive than other applicants, to first attend a community college and complete an associate degree, upon which time they would be guaranteed admission to the university that had originally accepted them.

NC GAP, according to the legislation, would improve graduation rates; decrease students’ debt burdens; reduce state higher education spending; and provide students, at the least, with a two-year credential that could boost their employment prospects. But university officials have a different take. After it analyzed the potential impact of the program last March, the UNC system’s General Administration claimed that NC GAP would produce fewer graduates, harm low-income and minority students, and jeopardize the state’s historically black universities.

In an article critical of those findings, Pope Center president Jenna A. Robinson challenged the notion that NC GAP would cause fewer students to obtain four-year degrees. She referenced an American Education Research Association report showing that community college transfers have degree completion rates that equal those of students who begin at four-year institutions. “NC GAP is not a silver bullet, but it is a real step towards improving North Carolina’s many pathways to higher education,” concluded Robinson.

Nevertheless, the university system’s pushback seems to have been effective. In July, the legislature changed its stance on NC GAP, and now it appears that universities will not be required to institute the admissions deferment program if they instead implement their own plans to improve completion rates. Earlier this month, the system’s Board of Governors (BOG) voted in favor of this strategy, and a report will be presented to the legislature by January 2017.

In a 64-page summary of the Undergraduate Degree Completion Improvement Plan, the university system explains that instead of pursuing even a pilot test of NC GAP, each institution will refine or expand existing “student success” programs. While there are over 70 different strategies listed, the most commonly cited ones aim to provide “early alerts and intrusive advising programs; curriculum and scheduling planning tools; enriched education experiences; and targeted financial literacy programs.”

Also, each university will identify subgroups of students who may be more likely to struggle academically and set goals for their success. For example, Elizabeth City State University plans to focus on first-time, full-time male students through an intrusive advising program meant to encourage greater academic engagement. And North Carolina State University will require its borderline admits to reside on campus in “Learning and Living Villages”—essentially, dorms that emphasize academic counseling, tutoring, and study sessions.

Such academic pampering, however, has had dubious results in recent years. For example, several universities identify Summer Bridge programs, which are intended to gently guide underprepared students into college-level work by requiring them to first take summer courses and then receive intensive academic counseling, as pathways to student success.

But last year, the legislature rightly ended those programs—which had been in place since the 2007-08 academic year at NC Central, Fayetteville State, UNC-Pembroke, Elizabeth City State, and NC A&T—because they were not improving graduation rates; in fact, students in the programs had lower success rates than those of traditional students. Taxpayers ended up paying more than $7 million to send, each year, about 300 marginal students into an educational environment in which they had little chance of succeeding.

The latest UNC system strategy seems to be to double-down on this failed approach of more special treatment and more handholding. This time, however, the price tag is not immediately clear. The system’s report notes that no new money has been allocated to pursue these goals; going forward, campuses planning to implement new programs will be forced to reallocate university money or, more likely, lobby the General Assembly for more funds.

So instead of saving public dollars, which NC GAP would have done (the UNC system itself admitted that in its March report), it’s likely that the state’s higher education costs will increase in the future. That’s especially problematic considering that the revised legislation provides no stipulation to ensure that universities’ “student success” programs are in fact successful; it merely states that as long as universities pursue the goal of improving graduation rates, they are exempt from instituting NC GAP.

While the general administration claims to be following the spirit of the original NC GAP legislation, at least one state politician disagrees. Addressing the system’s Board of Governors at its December meeting, Senator David L. Curtis said that while the new plan has some good ideas for helping students already in the system, NC GAP was intended to aid incoming students who are unprepared for the rigors of a university education. Curtis urged the board to reconsider implementing NC GAP, even though it is not legislatively mandated.

BOG member Thom Goolsby agrees with Senator Curtis. Goolsby cited a UNC report that found that GPAs are strongly correlated with university performance: “We’ve done the work and we know the answer. Simply passing this plan and saying it’s the answer to NC GAP is not only wrongheaded, it’s not supported by any of the information that we have,” he said. Indeed, an increasing amount of data show that poorly performing high school students are unlikely to successfully transition to college, even if they receive extra counseling and remediation.

Unfortunately, the drive to expand university access—and keep revenue streams flowing—seems to have caused policymakers to ignore such glaring evidence, as well as the potential benefits of NC GAP. The program would not have been a panacea, but rather a next-best alternative in a university system that often sends ill-prepared students to institutions where they either struggle academically or drop out with debt and limited employment opportunities.

University officials and lawmakers who recognize these problems should continue to fight the good fight and advocate higher academic standards and smarter educational alternatives. Students, parents, and taxpayers stand to benefit when courageous leaders challenge the state’s higher education establishment and its increasingly self-interested policies.

  • Jeff H

    “Healthcare” is now apparently a “right”. So, why not “college”? I mean, Bernie was gonna make it “free”.

    • ib1netmon

      Yup, and by then it will be worth exactly what it ‘costs’.

    • DrOfnothing

      Education and basic healthcare are indeed two services that taxpayers in every other Western country (and some considerably poorer than the US) receive. Shouldn’t the question be, if there, then why _not_ here?

  • HardWorkWins

    This problem will only get bigger as admission gets further away from merit.

    • Da Rio Swagg

      Honestly. Affirmative Action needs to end for entitled kids whose parents happen to have money.

  • wlc2

    Attending community college before attending an university certainly helped me. When graduating from high school, I was neither academically nor emotionally mature enough for all that going to an university requires. After 2 years of CC, I received an associate degree, which enabled me to work in my field immediately. And I matured a lot being away from home for those years. I was therefore more financially, emotionally and academically ready for the challenges a faced afterwards.
    As long as the NC GAP program is voluntary, meaning that the state does not force participation, then I would support the program.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    North Carolina traditionally had a lot of extremely poor kids as the first generation going to college, from an Appalachian background. They weren’t stupid but did need support or student tutoring, because they were fish out of water and homesick. So there were a lot of small teacher colleges in nearby towns, with faculty who understood but did not lower standards, and a lot of work-study. (Manly Wade Wellman uses such colleges as background in some of his stories.)

    If the percentage of failure is higher now, either the college’s are less effective at support, or the students have more problems and deficiencies than the shoeless young men of yore did.

    • disqus_nBMMez9Ikj

      I agree with your last paragraph, but I would also add that the colleges are riding the gravy train of government loans and admitting many many people who should not be in a university setting and would do better in a community college or trade school track. I have said for years that college will be the next “bubble” similar to a financial bubble.

    • Da Rio Swagg

      A lot of problems in public higher education come down to the problems that secondary schools have. If you’re not doing a great job of teaching students in high school, of course you’re going to have some trouble once they get to college.

  • Tina849

    I hate the statistic, graduation rate in 6 years. I thought college was 4 years – it was when I went? What is the 4 year graduation rate? How much money is spent on those extra two years and why?

    • disqus_nBMMez9Ikj

      There are a number of degrees that have expanded to six years these days. For example, I received an accounting degree in four years and was able to take the CPA exam and receive my certificate with a four year degree. In the early 00’s they changed the requirement to be either a master’s degree or a six year program.

      Now that begs the question why when the last two years are the same as some classes that I took as a four year student and they are just padding the years with other things. This goes to the university-government complex that is just out for even more of the student’s money.

      • Tina849

        I believe the stat is only looking at BA/BS degrees. The 5-6 year master programs wouldn’t be counted, correct???? It should not take 6 years to get a BS. I double majored, got the BS, but I did have to take 3 summer classes due to scheduling issues. (I was a chemistry and finance major, lots of labs)

        • disqus_nBMMez9Ikj

          I would expect it should be a traditional what would be considered 4 year degrees. But you have all sorts of situations where finishing in 4 years may not be possible. Some, like my wife, worked full time and took close to a full course load and it took 5 years. I for one lost a semester by changing majors and it took some extra time. I would assume the time period is to adjust for circumstances as well as some degrees just taking longer. Six years does seem too long for the traditional BS/BA degree though.

        • Da Rio Swagg

          Six year graduation rates include students that are not full-time students over that entire period of time. At least in where I live, Florida, its not uncommon for people to choose to take time off between years.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    NC GAP is an interesting proposal — but why would a student that’s been accepted at a university want to lower themselves by starting at a community college?

    Besides, it will look bad on your resume: community college followed by university degree looks BAD on a resume, because someone reading it will think that you were first rejected by UNC-Chapel Hill.

    There is a stratification issue here that no one is addressing — first we called them “junior colleges,” then they were called “community colleges,” and now in Florida we call them “state colleges” — so there is a long history of trying to erase the stigma associated with CC’s.

    But you cannot erase the stigma, even if it means being better prepared, graduating with less student loan debt, etc. What may be a rational decision in one context need not be in another — it depends on the unit of analysis.

    Would newly accepted students at UNC-Chapel Hill rather sign-up at a community college? No, of course not. UNC-Chapel Hill has higher prestige and reputational value.

    Pushback from the universities is inevitable, too, because NC GAP is telling them how to run their operations. It is seen as meddling, and it may or may not work as planned. NC GAP must first address these concerns to be accepted.

    “NC GAP, according to the legislation, would improve graduation rates; decrease students’ debt burdens; reduce state higher education spending; and provide students, at the least, with a two-year credential that could boost their employment prospects.” This ignores the century-old stigma problem in American Education, which Germany was able to avoid. Here is why we are so different:
    Hal Hansen, Work, Schools, Educational Governance, and the State: German Vocationalism and the Recasting of American Educational History.

  • Rafterman

    “She referenced an American Education Research Association report showing that community college transfers have degree completion rates that equal those of students who begin at four-year institutions.”

    But what are the rates of graduation with a four-year degree of similar students who start at a CC and at a 4-year college? That is the question.