Opinion: Daily Journal

Higher Education Suggestions for GOP Leaders

I know Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican leadership at the General Assembly are inundated at the moment. There’s no lack of people offering policy advice or pleading for their cause or group. Why should I be different?

Two recommendations for the new leadership in state government follow. They are about the UNC system and are part advocacy and part suggestions for reform.

There is a great deal of discussion that public universities in North Carolina are not providing young people with the necessary training to meet the demands of the state’s businesses. The draft of UNC’s latest strategic plan describes this extensively. McCrory has talked about it repeatedly.

A 2011 Pew Research Center poll revealed 47 percent of Americans believed the primary purpose of a college education was to teach work-related skills; only 39 percent said it was to help a person grow intellectually and personally.

Preparing young people with technical skills required by the state’s economy is a central responsibility of the UNC system. But there are two important qualifiers. First, a public university should be more than a training camp for a state’s businesses — and incidentally, a nice subsidy for them. It also must serve its students’ (or principal customers’) personal intellectual, professional, and economic needs as well as strengthen broader civil society.

Second, I worry that this approach views the global economy too parochially. Many current state legislators have been leaders in North Carolina’s traditional economy — one based on agriculture and low-tech, small-scale manufacturing. If North Carolina wants to be a winner, its graduates need a skill set different from the one many policymakers have. Students must be able to solve problems and communicate effectively to diverse audiences.

Their need to learn will be continual. They must contribute to the kind of robust civic life the state needs to attract and keep important people, companies, and institutions. The competencies essential to success are not technical or vocational; they are inherently academic. The current macroeconomic and fiscal environment requires the university to be more efficient. Its teaching, research, and service mission is critical, but should not come at any price.

There are two main arguments about how to gain efficiencies. The first is administration. According to the U.S. Department of Education, between 2001 and 2011 the number of administrators on American college campuses grew 50 percent faster than the number of instructors. UNC has contributed to this trend. Like other institutions, it also supports many units that are distant from the university’s core responsibilities.

Before they start to prune, however, policymakers should assign personnel to serve the mission better, not cut across the board reflexively. Administrative bloat is generally greater in the middle tiers. Positions frequently are carved out for faculty who are among the least productive teachers, scholars, and grant-getters.

Since administrative work can be lucrative, this creates perverse incentives. As staff positions are cut, administrators must do clerical-type work for which they are overqualified and overpaid.

The second view, widely held at N.C. State, is that greater investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines is critical. The assumption is that this investment would come at the cost of other academic fields and departments. McCrory has said this. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida has argued students in STEM fields should pay less tuition. But science and engineering education already is subsidized heavily. Its professors are paid considerably more than colleagues across campus, and these disciplines require costly overhead — federal government grants offset these expenses only partially.

To give you some idea of the magnitude of the subsidy, when I was chair of political science at N.C. State, our annual budget was roughly $1.4 million. We produced approximately 14,000 undergraduate student credit hours — or about $100 each. In-state students, however, were paying more than $150 a credit hour. What happened to the other $50? The calculation excludes some overhead (really just our share of building costs) but also our graduate teaching, share of the university’s state appropriation, out-of-state students, and grants and contracts.

The extra, of course, went to college and university administration and other departments, particularly those in STEM fields, which charge the same amount for a considerably more expensive product.

Faculty and students in the humanities and social sciences contribute greatly to this subsidy. So do taxpayers. Because tuition and grants do not cover their bills, science and engineering departments in UNC schools grab a disproportionate share of their university’s state appropriation. Moreover, in midcareer their graduates make three times more than their counterparts in fields like social work and teaching.

Scott might be right about differential tuition; he just believes the wrong group of students should benefit from it.

Andy Taylor is a professor of political science in the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University.