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North Carolina's Higher Education System

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Publication Date: February 2008

Publisher(s): Center for College Affordability and Productivity

Author(s): Andrew Gillen; Richard Vedder

Topic: Education (Education policy and planning)
Education (Colleges and universities)

Keywords: Higher Education; North Carolina Education

Type: Report

Coverage: North Carolina

Abstract:

North Carolina has long prided itself on what many perceive to be one of the finest systems of higher
education in the country. Aside from having a number of nationally recognized private schools of distinction (e.g., Duke, Wake Forest, Davidson), the state has invested aggressively with public funds. The Research Triangle is considered one of the nation's leading success stories for integrating higher education with private sector entrepreneurship and technology. The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill is considered one of the nation' s premier public universities in every ranking of schools. State government appropriations for higher education in general have risen over time, even after adjusting for both considerable amounts of inflation and robust population growth. Politicians in both political parties, but perhaps most notably former governor James Hunt, argued that universities were an engine for economic growth, and also the primary way in the modern era in which ordinary citizens even those disadvantaged
by low income, minority ethnic status, or the like could achieve the American dream. Higher appropriations were successfully promoted on the grounds that this will increase the access of students to college and enhance the state's economic condition. It is a point of pride among some politicians that North Carolina in modern times has tended to outspend peer states and the nation as a whole on higher education. However, our objective analysis of the data suggests that another interpretation of higher education public policy is possible. Despite the massive increases in taxpayer support, the state lags behind both the national average and most neighboring states in the proportion of adults with college degrees. Tuition
costs have soared even more than has typically been the case nationally. A huge and growing portion of resources have been devoted to noninstructional activities. A lack of transparency prevents some of the most elementary questions from being answered. For example, how many hours per week is the typical professor in the classroom? Or, more fundamentally, what have students graduating from a North Carolina
university gained during their years in attendance? Do they have a demonstrably larger body of useful
knowledge and skills? Has their ability to think critically improved? Have their values and personal
characteristics improved are they more honest, harder working, more tolerant of others, etc.? In general, both the colleges and general public are clueless as to the answers to these questions. Thus, one could say that the higher education system lacks transparency and accountability, and is increasingly costly and inefficient. Productivity is hard to measure without good measures of outcomes, but it is more likely falling rather than rising in North Carolina higher education.