Isn't it about time to ask UNC some hard questions?

Published August 27, 2020

By Joe Mavretic

Back on 9 December 2018, Rob Christensen wrote a commentary about his political observations  of the past 45 years. I’m a fan of Rob and this article is my first reflection on his #6 comment: "The University of North Carolina system has been-and still is- one of the state’s economic drivers." Let’s do a drivers’ test.
North Carolina has been in the bottom half of our nation in "Average Wage" and "Average Household Income" for at least the past forty years. Since part of our public university’s mission is to "Graduate good citizens with the skills needed in the marketplace," why aren’t our graduates worth more? Perhaps the driver needs to put a foot on the gas! 
Let’s look at the "Driver," all sixteen of them….the Universities of North Carolina. US News has 399 nationally ranked campuses in its 2020 edition. Only 3 public universities in North Carolina were in the top half. UNC-Chapel Hill was tied with four others at #29 (and was below Duke and Wake Forest). North Carolina State University was tied with four others at #84 (and was below Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Miami, Florida State and Syracuse). UNC-Wilmington was tied with five others at #185. North Carolina is at least the tenth largest state, perhaps now the ninth largest, half of our general fund budget is devoted to public education, and the result is that in North Carolina only 3 of 399 nationally ranked universities are in the top 200. Where are the others? East Carolina University and UNC-Charlotte are tied at #228. UNC-Greensboro is #272 and North Carolina A&T is #281. That means that North Carolina has only seven of sixteen campuses even considered in national rankings. What about the other nine?
US News has a lower category that divides the country into four geographic regions and North Carolina is in the Southern Region (SR) with 136 other ranked universities. We do well here with four of six in the top half. Appalachian State University is tied at #6. Western Carolina University is #23. North Carolina Central University is tied with three others at #54 and Winston-Salem State University is tied with three others at #61. Fayetteville State University and UNC-Pembroke State University are tied with each other in the bottom half at #87. In other still lower rankings, UNC-Asheville is ranked #148 out of 223 Liberal Arts Colleges and Elizabeth City State University is tied with two others at #26 out of 124 Southern Regional Colleges. The North Carolina School of the Arts is unranked in Art Schools by US News.
A probable reason for thinking that our universities are better than they actually are is that the public is often confused by the terms UNC/UNC SYSTEM/UNC-CH. A very good ranking for UNC-CH is not the same as the ranking for UNC or for the system. A slight change from "UNC" to the "University System of North Carolina"(USNC) would reduce confusion and enable accuracy.
Who is responsible for USNC’s overall mediocre performance? Our General Assemblies. Unlike our state system of public schools and community colleges that have extraordinary local involvement, the USNC is beholden to our legislative branch. Most members of our House and Senate are graduates (Alumni) of one of the system’s universities. The House and Senate members elect the Board of Governors that is supposed to guide all sixteen universities. Those same members of our assembly provide the appropriations for that system. The "backdoor and under-the-table deals" between our legislators, the system leaders and campus representatives are legendary! What our General Assembly DOES NOT DO is require the University System of North Carolina to improve its performance-it does not link appropriations to outcomes.
As a guide, our three "top-half" universities’ graduates earn a median annual starting salary over $50,000.00. Our bottom dwellers earn about $10,000.00 less. Our top university graduates about 82 percent in four years but, in the bottom fourth, less than 50% percent even graduate. All our universities should be held accountable for the quantity and the quality of their graduates. We’ve been doing that for years with our students in K-12.
More than half of our public university students take over four years to graduate. All that extra time runs up their college debt. Every university in the system except one has over 50% of its graduates with debt. Almost all student loans are over $20,000.00. One obvious way to reduce student debt, and return to four-year graduations, is to require our universities to have "skin in the game." 
In normal times, debating a requirement to link an educations’ cost to the quality of that education would not occur. However, the pandemic, and its dramatic effect on university attendance, has highlighted the need for debating at least two questions. First, are each of our sixteen universities performing at the level our taxpayers should expect? Second, are our university students getting the skills needed in the market place in return for their time, cost and debt?
I suspect that such a debate will engender other questions such as: the system’s advantage to capping undergraduate enrollment at the larger campuses in order to encourage growth at the smaller ones; the reliability of current admission standards; and, the relationship between faculty demands and student needs. Finally, someone is bound to question the lack of diversity among our sixteen Chancellors!