How many times have we heard that higher education is an economic driver? That graduates will make $1 million more than high school graduates, on average? That North Carolina must spend an ever-increasing amount on higher education to maintain such results?

These arguments were repeated tonight at an event co-sponsored by Higher Ed Works and the Harvard Club at RTP. But these claims are not borne out by UNC’s performance. Although many individual students greatly benefit from college, too many students in the UNC system learn very little. Many end up worse off:

  • At four UNC institutions, more than half of all students have still not graduated after six years.
  • The average four-year graduation rate across the system is just 40.4 percent.
  • At six UNC institutions, more than 10 percent of recent graduates have defaulted on their student debt.
  • Students who major in many niche fields–including women’s studies, African-American studies, environmental studies, and drama– still make less than $30,000 five years after graduation.
  • And nationally, the $1 million dollar college premium has been debunked again, and again, and again.
  • Moreover, students are learning less than we would like. In a recent book, Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia show that nearly half of university students show little to no academic progress by their sophomore year.

Despite flaws in their overarching message, panelists made several important points: that tuition has been rising too fast; that for many students, starting at a community college is a great foot in the door to higher education; that financial aid should be tied to success; that remediation should be moved to community colleges; and that technology offers many opportunities for transformation and efficiencies in higher education going forward. Also promising are efforts towards introducing competency-based education in the state.

Focusing too much on maintaining higher education appropriations and expenditures overshadows larger opportunities for improvement in the UNC system. It’s time for real reform.