Overwhelming challenges to higher education

Published October 25, 2013

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, Executive Producer and moderator, NC SPIN, October 25, 2013

Our colleges and universities face critical challenges. America once boasted the best higher education in the world, the leader in the number attaining higher education. Now we rank 10th.

Public universities, which traditionally educate about 70 percent of college students, received 38 percent of their funding from the states in 1992, but that percentage decreased to 23 percent by 2010. North Carolina provides about 7,000 dollars per in-state undergraduate student but we’ve clearly gone from state-supported to state-assisted schools. The UNC System is typical of public systems experiencing large cuts in state and federal funding, leading to growing dependence on corporate grants and alumni gifts, often targeted for sports or specific purposes. The result is larger classes, decreased facilities maintenance and, even though our Constitution calls for public college education to be “as free as practicable,” parents and students have experienced more than a decade of steep tuition hikes - nationwide more than a 140 percent increase since 1980.

Too many drop out, those graduating require five or more years and increased tuitions have resulted in large student debts upon entering the workforce. Parents say the costs aren’t worth it in one national survey. UNC President Tom Ross has demanded tuition freezes for in-state students. The handwriting on the blackboard is administrators must become more cost-conscious, more accountable and better managers.

A recent Time Magazine article stated higher education has never been more expensive or seemingly less demanding. In “Academically Adrift,” author Richard Arum says the average student devoted 40 hours a week to schoolwork in 1961; by 2003, that number had dropped to 27 hours, perhaps explaining why one study says 36 percent of graduates had not shown any cognitive gains over four years.

Academic integrity is under assault. At the same instant athletics are out of control, faculty are demanding they be allowed to decide what to teach and students demand what they want to study. Grade inflation is undeniable and employers say they no longer trust GPAs. Half of the employers in a recent study say graduates are underprepared and they have trouble finding qualified graduates.

Curriculums must become more rigorous, redesigned to meet workplace needs. Fewer students pursue degrees in natural sciences and engineering compared to other countries. Four in ten doctoral students in science and engineering hail from foreign countries; our immigration laws force many to return to their native lands, ultimately competing against corporate America.

All these factors are impacting research. Since Harry Truman’s time we’ve understood the role of basic research was best done on college campuses, but today little more than half the research and development comes from universities. Much of North Carolina’s prosperity has resulted from research conducted on our campuses and a reduction in R&D will impact future competitiveness.

Educators wonder if digital learning is a boon or threat. It’s too soon to know technology’s ultimate impact. Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC’s, enable students to study wherever they are, questioning the future of matriculation. And future discussions must determine the best role for community colleges.

Public and private colleges are facing seemingly overwhelming challenges from government, trustees, faculty, alumni, parents, students and employers. Their role is crucial to our future and demands our very best to make needed changes without threatening their continued viability.

October 25, 2013 at 9:18 am
TP Wohlford says:

Mr. Campbell -- Perhaps you'd want to contact Dr. Glenn Reynolds, who runs the highly-regarded Instapundit blog site, who has written extensively on this topic. I'm sure he'd love to be reprinted here, and does a nice TV thing too!

Some notes:

- When you take the top 2/3 of every high school graduating class ("top" in terms of either ambition or talent), and send them all to college, should we marvel that they do better on average than the 1/3 that didn't go to college? It's not like we have a "control group" when our studies come back and indicated that "college grads make more money", correct?

- I have a BA from a fancy college, complete with hand-written diploma, in Latin, on real sheep skin. I have a MDiv as well. I make my living -- a nice living -- with IT skills that I learned in self-study, for-profit classes plus community college classes. Indeed, many IT employers don't require a BA or BS because they recognize that it doesn't add much. I suspect that the idea that one is forced into a choice between poverty, jail or college, is starting to lose it strength.

- Price. My college was listed as a high-price place in 1980, for what today would be $22,700. That included all lab fees, sports tickets, field trips, meals, dorm, etc. Today, that is below the base price for most "inexpensive" state colleges. Can we really afford to spend $250k or more per student -- a figure that doesn't include lost wages for those 4 years -- for a residential 4-year degree in which 18 year olds major in partying, getting (sex), and maybe some courses in journalism? Doing a present value calculation, I see that this closes the gap between similar students going to college versus non-college career choices!

- Colleges want to provide an "education", but they sell "career". There is a difference between an "education" -- ie, dead Greek poets and such -- and "Career" skills, which would include a good course in bar tending (Princeton used to offer this). Most of the academic courses in undergrad have no market value -- accounting and computer programming being the most obvious exceptions. Colleges need to sell "education", be content with those wanting to study philosophy and Chaucer and such, and then we need to explore how best to provide job skills -- hopefully at substantially less than $250k per student.

October 25, 2013 at 11:49 pm
Tom Hauck says:

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your column.

An additional factor in North Carolina seems to be that about 60% of the incoming students need remedial work to do two or four year college level work. Thus we are not insisting on accountability from high school teachers and, by the failure of the high school teachers, adding to the student's cost of college.

By the way, at 40 hours or 23 hours of homework each week, how can we expect varsity football or basketball students to have the time to do their homework in their season? Who is kidding who?