News: Quick Takes

Spellings: Four-year liberal arts degrees remain relevant in closing ‘skills gap’

UNC President Margaret Spellings, from 2016. (CJ file photo)
UNC President Margaret Spellings, from 2016. (CJ file photo)

Students thinking about alternatives to a four-year degree should keep those college applications, University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings says.

The state is facing a very real “skills gap,” and technical schools and certificate programs are important. But liberal arts education remains critical for work force development, Spellings told business leaders gathered Aug. 10 at the North Carolina Chamber’s Conference on Education.

The presentation from the former U.S. Secretary of Education began a day-long discussion about professional training, apprenticeships, and the role of higher education in the modern economy.  

Americans are skeptical, she acknowledged. A 2017 study from the New America Foundation shows declining confidence in the value of a college degree.

Additionally, a national poll from the Pew Research Foundation shows 58 percent of Republicans, the North Carolina legislature’s majority party, believe colleges and universities have “a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.” Only 36 percent had a positive outlook.

Those numbers have reversed since 2015, when 54 percent of Republicans thought colleges had a positive impact, and 37 percent believed their effect was negative.

“That is extremely troubling,” Spellings said. “That sounds alarm bells far beyond the university halls, and it raises some questions for the health of our political system and our economy.”

It’s easy to understand where the bad rap emanates, Spellings said.

Higher education has become the default for high school graduates.

“When you survey our state’s ninth-graders, they overwhelmingly plan to go to college. We have more than sold college as a ticket.”

But far too many high-schoolers graduate only to feel blocked from continuing education, she said. Academic requirements are often unclear. Credit transfers are convoluted. University price tags are high. Financial aid programs are confusing.

“I used to say in my secretarial days that our financial aid systems and other systems are so complicated, it’s as if we’re trying to keep people out of college, not get them in.”

The answer isn’t to rule out universities altogether. Instead, lawmakers and administrators should work to “smooth rough transitions” between Pre-K, K-12, community colleges, and public and private universities.

Remove the roadblocks, she said.

“I’m not fine with a qualified student who can’t see a pathway to higher education because they think it’s too expensive, they don’t feel welcome, or they don’t see the link between college, a continuing education, and a career.”

The business community must also step up, Spellings challenged.

“I hear from students who feel that employers don’t provide enough flexibility or support for them to gain advanced credentials.”

Internships, co-ops, and on-the-job learning projects would help students and companies. UNC provides several of those programs, but they need more business partners, she said.

It’s outdated to believe that technical training and liberal arts can’t go hand in hand, she added.

“Higher education has no monopoly on business and creativity, and the business world is not the only place where people can break a sweat and create value. We have to put aside this narrative that the private sector is handicapped by bloated public institutions.