We’re One People, Not ‘Two North Carolinas’

University of North Carolina system president Margaret Spellings recently outlined her plans for higher education to drive economic prosperity in the News & Observer. Her “Two North Carolinas” class rhetoric was remarkably reminiscent of that of another North Carolina public figure with ties to the University of North Carolina. That is, failed (and disgraced) former presidential candidate John Edwards, whose campaign of class politics was entitled “Two Americas.”

Edwards tried to elevate himself to the White House by showing the nation how much he cared about the poor and working class. He even got the state’s Democratic establishment, then in total control of the state government, to provide him with his own policy think tank—the Poverty Center at the UNC-Chapel Hill law school—from which to mount his crusade. During the Democratic Party 2008 primary, however, his personal failings brought him crashing down.

Unfortunately, Spellings appears to have adopted Edwards’s philosophy of “policy by virtue-signaling.” Despite her grand schemes, it is not the university system’s mission to eliminate “inequality” North Carolina. Trying to do so will inevitably result in failure, wastefulness, and missed opportunity.

The UNC system has long tried to justify its budget requests by claiming a position at the center of North Carolina’s economy, despite an absence of proof that this is the case. This way of thinking also betrays a misunderstanding of how an economy really functions. While higher education undoubtedly plays an important role in some aspects of the economy, more perceptive reasoning recognizes that the major solutions for poverty and economic malaise lay not just beyond the university system, but beyond the boundaries of the state. These cures include sensible trade policies that don’t disadvantage U.S. industries, less onerous environmental and commercial regulations that don’t strangle small businesses, and less burdensome tax policies that don’t choke off investment and saving.

But university involvement in the economy tends to introduce thinking that is detrimental to economic performance. Demographic bean-counting, such as Spellings’ call for “aggressive but realistic targets, like a 31 percent increase in low-income graduates at North Carolina A&T and a 17 percent increase in rural graduates at Western Carolina University by 2022” smacks of the central-planning mindset that stifles rather than enhances economic growth.

If rural North Carolina has lagged behind the rest of the state, it is not due to a lack of higher education. Public community colleges are located in 18 of North Carolina’s 40 Tier 1 rural or economically distressed counties. Many more counties host remote campuses affiliated with the Community College system. All are open-admissions schools. Three UNC institutions—Elizabeth City State, Western Carolina, and UNC Pembroke—are also located in Tier 1 counties.

Rural and small-town poverty has nothing to do with higher education; it is instead the result of real changes in the way goods and services are produced and with the aforementioned bad policies on a national level.

Poverty in America, whether rural or urban, is also much more a cultural problem than it is a higher education problem. Much of it is caused by broken family structures, decaying cultural institutions, substance abuse, or negative attitudes toward work. The urban poor in Charlotte and Raleigh are surrounded by affluence and opportunity; they live amidst a wide range of colleges, some of them extremely low-cost. It is not a lack of higher education that prevents them from achieving a reasonably secure existence. Lots of people in these areas have comfortable, meaningful lives without college degrees; something other than the lack of opportunity—or higher education—is holding the impoverished back.

Policies that call for drastically increasing college graduates from low-income or at-risk populations also fly in the face of scholastic reality. UNC policymakers seem to be in a state of denial that causes them to ignore the fact that not all students are equal in terms of effort and aptitude. The vast majority of talented high school students—no matter what their socio-economic background—are already going to college. In order to fill the “quotas” set by the university system, UNC schools must actively recruit students from lower in the talent pool.

Still, the university system can play an even greater major role in improving the lives of low-income North Carolinians that fits comfortably into its mission to educate.

And the lower levels of the talent pool can be very fragile. Recent years have revealed the disastrous effects on many young people who either drop out of academic programs before earning a degree or who graduate by doing the bare minimum in easy majors. Many are mired in debt; others have a sense of failure with no appreciable increase in skills. There is also an opportunity cost to heading down the wrong path right out of high school, for there are more certain routes to getting a good start in life for those who are not academically inclined: the military, apprenticeships, vocational training, or even work experience.

If there is an educational component to poverty, it is much more likely to be found at the K-12 level. It is in the early years of education that there is often a failure to acculturate low-income students to the norms of prosperity, as well as a failure to ensure they are solid on the basic skills and knowledge that they need to progress further.

The UNC system administration should not consider itself as a social services agency that can make up for deficiencies in upbringing and culture on a broad scale. It exists to educate those who are capable of and receptive to education, and it already offers considerable help to lower-income students through several generous grant programs and by keeping tuition lower than almost all other state systems.

Still, the university system can play an even greater major role in improving the lives of low-income North Carolinians that fits comfortably into its mission to educate. What the university system can do is promote a strong culture with high standards that will, in time, reduce young people’s tendencies toward social pathologies, poor acculturation, and bad decision-making that leads to poverty.

But that would require a drastic shift in the university system leadership’s fundamental beliefs. It would require an active and passionate rejection of the relativistic, hedonistic, redistributive philosophy that has captured higher education and, from its beachhead in the universities, permeated throughout the rest of society. That mindset causes many young people to make bad choices, to underperform, to feel resentment where opportunity abounds, and to prolong adolescence.

If Spellings really wants to help the unfortunate and aid the future economy of North Carolina, she should focus on getting UNC schools to re-emphasize the traditional culture of individual achievement and responsibility. This means starting the difficult process of beating back the assault on capitalism that is prevalent in the social sciences and humanities (as well as in many administrations).

So enough of these failed policies of social engineering through increased university enrollment. There are not “Two North Carolinas” in the manner Spellings suggests. There are 10 million individual North Carolinians of vast diversity whose abilities, interests, backgrounds and work ethics form a seemingly infinite range. Let’s have policies that reflect that reality instead of always trying to divide us into “two.”