Tom Ross: We Need to Focus on the Real Value of Higher Education
Outgoing UNC System President Tom Ross gave a recent address to the National Public Affairs forum where he spoke about our state and country losing its way in terms of higher education. He remarks on the dramatic cuts to the university system that he oversaw and urges leaders to continue to invest in a strong university system.
America is losing her way with regard to higher education. We seem to have forgotten the real value of higher education – both to our economy and to our society. We have become too focused on metrics, return on investment and job preparation. I am not suggesting these are unimportant. Rather, I would remind us that higher education offers many other – and I contend greater – benefits to our nation and its citizens and communities.
Universities have long been known and respected as places of ideas and debate, of big discoveries and bigger dreams. It is within our universities that we have tackled some of our most perplexing problems and found solutions to them. It is on our campuses that generations of students have learned how to think for themselves and how to work collaboratively with others. Our universities have been places where ideas and dreams are converted to life-changing discoveries, and where our leaders of tomorrow are developed. Since the dawn of our nation, our universities have been at the center of our civil society and our search for excellence.
We increasingly view our colleges and universities as nothing more than factories that must demonstrate an immediate return on investment for consumers. Places that only train people for the workforce. We hear constant calls to drive out costs and produce more product at less cost. There is far less talk about academic quality and excellence and more about operational efficiency. We seem to measure the value of education to our students only in immediate post-graduation earnings. Again, I am all for accountability and efficiency, but if that is our sole focus, we may fail to provide the return on investment that is perhaps most valuable for our students – the ability to think, reason and communicate more effectively.
Just last month, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote persuasively about the value of higher education. In that piece, he said, “It’s impossible to put a dollar value on a nimble, adaptable intellect, which isn’t the fruit of any specific course of study and may be the best tool for an economy and a job market that change unpredictably.” I believe Bruni is right, and we would do well to heed his words.
In some significant measure, our nation has been great because our higher education system has been the best in the world. Our colleges and universities have been the foundation of our democratic society. We have produced talent that remained productive over a lifetime – not because of particular skills taught, not because of preparation for a specific job, but instead because our students acquired the ability to analyze, work with others, understand our world, communicate effectively and appreciate the value of learning throughout one’s life. It is this creative, innovative, adaptable talent that has been our competitive advantage against the world.
Today, however, America’s societal commitment to investing in higher education appears to have eroded. We now spend about 2 percent more on higher education in real dollars than we spent 25 years ago, even though enrollment in our universities and colleges has grown by over 60 percent during that period. We spend about 30 percent less per student today than we did 25 years ago. As a nation, we are disinvesting in higher education, and we are beginning to pay the price.
Other nations are making sizable investments to build new academic facilities, hire new faculty and raise the educational attainment of their citizens. Meanwhile, the rankings of our own institutions are falling, and our premier status as the place to be educated is fading. Growing numbers of American students can’t afford to attend college at all, and too many of those who do are burdened by significant debt. This is a dangerous trend. And it is reflective of the serious challenges facing the higher education community today.
In highlighting a few of the most pressing challenges, I will use our own public university system as an example. So for context, let me offer some brief background about UNC’s structure and scope.
We enroll more than 220,000 students from every county in North Carolina, virtually every state in the Union, and numerous foreign countries.
We employ more people – approximately 60,000 – than any private enterprise in NC, just edging out WalMart.
We have 16 campuses that offer undergraduate, graduate and professional programs; two medical schools, two law schools, two dental schools, a vet school; five engineering schools, 11 nursing schools and 12 MBA programs; also, two high schools – School of Science and Mathematics; School of the Arts High School, along with UNC Health Care System, UNC-TV and the North Carolina Arboretum.
Our campuses attract more than $1.2 billion in research grants annually– which in turn generate related jobs, discoveries, inventions, and spin-out companies.
Our total budget is just over $9 billion – about $2.3 billion from the state – making us the 11th largest industry in NC.
And according to a recently released statewide analysis, the UNC system creates $27.9 billion of added economic value for the economy of North Carolina. That represents 6.4 percent of the State’s annual GDP – and has the equivalent impact of creating 426,000 new jobs.
And we are operating in an environment of shrinking resources, disruptive technologies and shifting political ideologies. Not a week goes by that I don’t read another round of reports from multiple sources and perspectives predicting major upheavals, overdue market corrections or the imminent demise of American higher education as we know it.