Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — North Carolina’s public university system faces a number of challenges. Taxpayer funding has become more limited. Academic expectations are higher. The struggling economy has made it harder for recent university graduates to find jobs. The John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy has offered the University of North Carolina system some ideas for dealing with this new environment. Pope Center President Jane Shaw recently discussed those ideas with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Martinez: It sounds as if there is a perfect storm brewing. Is the system ready for this?
Shaw: I don’t know if they’re ready, but we’re ready with some recommendations for them.
Martinez: Well, that’s good.
Shaw: And I did have the opportunity, along with my associate, Jay Schalin, a little while ago — I guess it was in March — to talk before the UNC Faculty Assembly, which is an advisory body for the UNC Board of Governors. And they asked us to comment on how to deal with budget issues, [how to] deal with the future. So among other things, we came up with 10 recommendations of what we think the university needs to do. That isn’t going to solve all [of] its problems, but it would go a long way.
Martinez: One at the top of the list is to limit enrollment. Jane, I have to tell you, that recommendation goes against what you typically hear people say. Most people say we need more and more people going to the UNC system. You say limit enrollment.
Shaw: Exactly. It is a different approach. But in fact, it is what is happening, as a matter of fact. There’s been an enormous growth in the UNC system over the past decade. It’s grown twice as fast as the population of North Carolina, which has been pretty fast itself. And the system just can’t handle all the students. What’s also happened is that many young people are now going to UNC, speaking of the system as a whole, and are not ready. They’re not prepared; they’re not interested. They’ve been kind of forced by their parents and by this overall mantra to go to college. And so you’ve got a lack of real academic quality in some cases.
Martinez: What was the reaction of the group that you spoke to, to that recommendation?
Shaw: Well, we didn’t get a reaction to each particular one; it was an overall reaction. The thing that surprised me so much is that we did have a number of allies. There were some people who came up to us and said that we really need to do this kind of thing, and they appreciated that. So, in general, there was a spirited discussion, but I think they appreciated it.
Martinez: You also suggest relying more on the community college system. Typically, if you ask someone in our state to identify the higher education system in North Carolina, they think of the university system. But the community college system is quite large and quite diverse. How do you see the UNC system working with community colleges?
Shaw: It’s very important that if UNC limits enrollment, there does have to be access. I mean, we want access for everyone who’s interested in going to college, who’s capable of going to college. They ought to be able to do that. But for many students that really should be the community college. And this is happening, actually, all over the country. Even well-off, higher-income people have begun to say, “Wait a minute, I could really save some money by sending my child to community college for two years and then going on and getting the full degree.”
And I think that’s a model that we should take very seriously. For one reason, it costs the taxpayer one-third the amount of the cost of a UNC student to be taught at a community college, and of course it saves the individual money, too.
Martinez: Where does online education fit into this whole scenario? Or does it?
Shaw: It does. And this is one of those exciting times. We don’t really know exactly how. One thing that I believe is a mistake that’s being made by a number of universities — probably UNC — [is] hoping that online education will be a source of revenue for them. And I think, to be realistic, it’s not going to be. There are too many online courses now that are available. Even MIT courses are available for free online. This is not going to be a way to make money. And also, faculty, while certainly some of them are good at online education, distance learning, they are not really that comfortable in that environment. It’s not going to be a big revenue producer.
Martinez: You also suggest that the system re-evaluate teaching versus research. I know that sometimes we hear about the so-called research institutions, but not all of the campuses in the system are research institutions. What do you think should happen?
Shaw: Well, they’re not called research institutions. Nevertheless, at most … colleges in the system there’s an emphasis by the faculty themselves on doing research so that they can move up in their profession. So we have a very widespread reliance on research. But especially in the research institutions, a lot of research is done, paid for by the taxpayer, through state appropriations, and it’s not being read. There have been studies showing that.
Nobody is paying attention to it. It’s more kind of the way to get into the guild and stay in the guild. This is really tragic. I think that in the pressure to make the university accountable, one of the biggest issues is the public wants to know, are students being taught. They’re not very interested in what esoteric literary theory is being written about.
Martinez: I think the public and parents also expect that they will be getting the most bang for their tuition buck. Where does tuition fit into your recommendations?
Shaw: We’ve seen a lot of tuition increases for so long, but in one particular case I think there is an opportunity for differential tuition.
Martinez: What is that?
Shaw: That means that a few colleges, a few universities — UNC-Chapel Hill maybe, N.C. State, maybe the UNC School of the Arts — could possibly raise their tuition in return for maybe less regulation by the state and maybe less money from the state. You can make the case that a number of well-off families are benefiting from the relatively low tuition at UNC — instead of Duke, for example — and that maybe that isn’t all that fair. Maybe they should be paying some more. Maybe they’re paying a third of that now. So it’s an interesting idea that certainly should be considered.
Martinez: Jane, whenever we speak on this program with Terry Stoops, who is the director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, we talk about the need for teachers. He analyzes the education schools at some of the universities within the system. He says, “Look, there are a lot of things that need to change about those schools.” You say the same thing.
Shaw: Absolutely. It appears that education schools generally — and there are quite a few of them — have gotten mired in [theory], not the nuts and bolts of how you actually teach a child how to read. And they’ve also moved into a kind of social justice concern that, again, is not very helpful for an actual teacher. So there’s a lot that could be done to restore the credibility of those schools.