Higher Education Policy

North Carolina's system of public higher education absorbs a substantial part of the state's budget — in Gov. Easley's 2007 budget recommendations, almost 18 percent went to higher education. State spending on higher education is usually justified on public-benefit grounds, namely that increased education and training for those who attend colleges and universities actually benefit everyone because the graduates will add so much to the economy and culture.

In terms of governmental appropriations for higher education, North Carolina is one of the states that most heavily subsidizes its university system, with more than 48 percent of the dollars spent on state colleges and universities coming from government appropriations. The median for the country is 37 percent.

Some states manage to run their higher education systems with only about one quarter of the funds coming from government appropriations. In Michigan, for example, only 26 percent of the funding comes from the state; in Colorado, only 22 percent.

The cost of higher education — both to taxpayers and to families paying tuition — has many people asking about the relationship between costs and benefits.

Are the Educational Benefits Declining?

It is generally assumed that earning a college degree significantly enhances an individual's knowledge and skills — his "human capital" — and thereby enables him to obtain good employment and contribute more to society. While that assumption may have been sound several decades ago, more and more evidence points to a persistent erosion of the college curriculum and academic standards. Because of what has been called the "dumbing down" effect, the benefit of the government's subsidization of higher education has become questionable.

The percentage of young people who go to college has increased dramatically since World War II. Whereas only about 10 percent of high school graduates went to college in the 1940s, today it is about 70 percent. In their desire to expand, many colleges lowered their admission standards.

At the majority of schools that are non-selective, a large number of students are, as one professor calls them, "disengaged." They resist reading and doing written assignments, and instead they focus their attention on finding the courses that are the easiest. To keep such students happy, many professors have watered down their courses and inflated their grades. For those students, college is not about learning, but just having fun while buying a degree.

Evidence of the academic erosion is very clear in the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) report, issued in December 2005. That study evaluated more than 19,000 adults, many of them college graduates, as to their literacy in three different domains: prose, document, and quantitative. The findings were shocking. In prose literacy, for example, only 31 percent of college graduates scored in the "proficient" range (which required a score of only 70 percent).

When the same study was done in the early 1990s, 40 percent had registered as proficient — a clear indication that college standards have gone down. At the same time, the NAAL showed an increase in the percentage of college graduates with only "basic" or even "below basic" literacy. That means that a significant number of college graduates have the literacy skills of grade schoolers — a poor testament to the educational value of their studies.

Graduation Doesn't Ensure Good Job

Data from the U.S. Department of Labor confirms what one would expect from the NAAL findings, namely that we now have many college graduates doing work that calls for no advanced education. According to federal statistics, for example, 47 percent of fitness and aerobics trainers now have college degrees, as do 25 percent of retail sales supervisors, and 31 percent of airline flight attendants.

Further evidence of the decline of standards in higher education comes from the 2003 Report of the National Commission on Writing, which found widespread dissatisfaction among employers with the writing skills of college graduates.

It costs society a lot to put students through college, but many of them learn little and end up competing for mundane jobs. This brings about the problem of "credential inflation," which is when employers insist that applicants have educational credentials that have little or no bearing on the ability to learn the job. In turn, that encourages still more people who don't really have an interest in education to spend a lot of time and money in getting a degree.

Recommendations

1. The institutions of the University of North Carolina system should stop the practice of admitting academically weak students who need remedial course work. For those students who have academic weaknesses that can be overcome with a semester of work in English or mathematics, it is more efficient to have them do that in a community college or a private educational service.

2. The UNC system should implement a policy of assessing students' fundamental knowledge and skills at the time of entrance and again at the time of graduation so as to determine how much educational value was added. High scores would be a plus for students who earned them; such a program would also identify university strengths and weaknesses.

3. UNC schools should reinstitute the idea of a rigorous core curriculum for students. Presently at many institutions, students can fulfill their general education requirements from a huge array of courses, many of which are narrow or trendy.

4. Both to save money and to improve instruction, UNC schools should reverse the trend toward lighter teaching requirements for professors by having them teach more courses and rely less on graduate assistants.