About a million North Carolinians have spent some time in college but left without obtaining a degree. Policymakers at the University of North Carolina system and the General Assembly see these non-completers as an enormous opportunity, an untapped resource of potential professionals, leaders, and entrepreneurs. Policymakers also see private and out-of-state institutions scrambling to help those non-completers get degrees. Right now, UNC schools serve about half of the North Carolinians taking online courses.

That’s why the UNC system secured $97 million from the state last year to launch a new endeavor, Project Kitty Hawk. “To make North Carolina competitive,” CEO Wil Zemp told Triangle Business Journal, “we have to very quickly set up a capability that can up-skill, re-skill, or skill working adults that are either not being served or don’t have services available to them.”

I believe online tools have many productive applications in higher education. I completed my master’s degree from UNC-Greensboro in part through online courses, and I currently use discussion boards and online content as critical elements of the in-person classes I teach at Duke University.

When it comes to projects such as Project Kitty Hawk, however, state officials need to be realistic. The vast majority of those who exit higher education without a degree will never earn one. Some left after discovering they didn’t enjoy or weren’t prepared to succeed in college-level courses. Others left for financial or personal reasons, then built careers and lives without a credential, and no longer deem it worth the time or expense to acquire one.

Don’t take my word for any of this. Just look at the available evidence, as Triangle Business Journal did for a recent cover story. In California, state leaders created an online community college in 2019 to help working adults finish their degrees. Over the first two years, only 12 of 904 enrollees completed enough courses to graduate.

Consider also the findings of a study of 200,000 Virginians who left community college without obtaining degrees. After screening for academic performance and occupation, the researchers concluded that only 3% “could reasonably expect a sizeable earnings premia from completing their degree.” In other words, on strictly economic grounds, it would be difficult to convince the vast majority of such dropouts to return.

On the other hand, these examples are specific to community college students. Perhaps those who are two or three years into a four-year degree in a potentially lucrative field will feel differently if presented a convenient and affordable option. And perhaps UNC needs something like Project Kitty Hawk to compete more effectively for North Carolinians who already want to finish their degrees and might do better getting them from a UNC campus than from an alternative provider with less academic rigor or few programs for post-graduation placement.

This is the age-old conflict between two old-age maxims: “he who hesitates is lost” and “look before your leap.”

Applying the first maxim, proponents of Project Kitty Hawk argue that if the UNC system fails to respond boldly and creatively here, it will lose potential enrollment and revenue to competitors while leaving North Carolina with a weaker pool of college-educated talent to fuel the state’s future growth. The second maxim reminds us, however, that good intentions aren’t enough.

I wish university leaders had engaged in more-extensive public debate about Project Kitty Hawk before it secured the seed money. Still, the initial outlay is relatively small and UNC has recruited experienced hands to the project’s staff and board. The best news is that they seemed to be focused clearly on adult learners for whom a degree is likely to have large financial returns.

University education shouldn’t be solely, or even mostly, about vocational training. But if what a working adult really desires is to read great books, explore great ideas, or appreciate great art, our modern world offers many options. UNC doesn’t need to build a new platform to satisfy those desires. Fortunately, its leaders seem to recognize that.

John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.