Shaw: McCrory is right on higher education

Jan. 31, 2013 @ 03:07 PM

Gov. Pat McCrory was caught a bit off guard when he discussed higher education on Bill Bennett’s radio show Tuesday. Some people are saying McCrory made a gaffe (or, less politely “stepped into it.”)

But he simply said what he thought. And that’s refreshing.

McCrory is new to the job and his prior experiences did not involve higher education, so his comments seemed disjointed. He is, however, rightly dismayed that many college graduates can’t get jobs and he thinks that incentives in state funding might change that.

He told Bennett that he has instructed his staff to come up with funding that is “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

However clumsy, McCrory’s remarks reflect a genuine concern about higher education that many people share these days: The education establishment is out of touch with the students and the people of the state who pay for the education.

I interpret McCrory’s concerns this way:

1) Elite schools such as UNC-Chapel Hill are not serving their students very well when they lead them into majors that have little payoff — McCrory specifically mentioned gender studies.

2) He would like to see university funding better reflect universities’ effectiveness in enabling graduates to find jobs.

3) He isn’t antagonistic to liberal arts; he quoted his father as saying that one of the reasons for education is to “exercise the brain” and he himself received a liberal arts education at Catawba College, a liberal arts college.

Even so, McCrory’s comments threw many educators and commentators across the state into an uproar, acting as if he had said he wanted to end liberal arts education in favor of purely vocational training. That’s a wrong and unproductive reaction. Rather than treat McCrory’s statements as an attack on liberal arts — missing the point — faculty and administrators at our colleges and universities should recognize that McCrory’s views reflect those of a growing public.

The plain, hard facts are that many liberal arts graduates are not getting jobs in large part because they haven’t learned much in the way of liberal arts! That’s at the root of McCrory’s comments, and of the public’s disillusion with higher education.

In many cases, graduates — even of the flagship schools — have not learned to write well, to speak well or to analyze intelligently what they read. While UNC- Chapel Hill doesn’t reveal its assessment of how much its students learn, the picture is not a good one on a national scale.

The National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that the literary proficiency of adults who have had some college is on the decline. A study by Richard Arum and Josipa Riksa showed that after four years of college, 36 percent of students had made no discernible progress in the ability to analyze critically.

For many, college is a maze of easy courses chosen for their lack of academic rigor. There is no true “core curriculum,” and a recent study showed that students only spend 14 hours a week studying (compared with 24 hours 50 years ago). The value of a diploma is slipping.

Faculty and administrators further this tendency by allowing students to fill up their time with courses like UNC-Chapel Hill’s “Dogs and People: From Prehistory to the Urbanized Future “ and “Music in Motion: American Popular Music and Dance.”

And when a student can get a minor in “Social and Economic Justice” without taking a course in the economics department, it’s hardly surprising that many graduates have failed to learn respect for private enterprise. Their perspectives often make them poor candidates for jobs in industry.

Faculty and administrators should heed McCrory’s remarks — even though the governor’s impact on university funding is smaller than that of the legislature —because his comments reflect the changing environment for higher education.

McCrory is not alone. Recently, a former governor, Mitch Daniels, took the helm at Purdue University. In an open letter to the university community, Daniels cited the many challenges facing universities and warned, “We would fail our duty of stewardship either to ignore the danger signs all around us, or to indulge in denial and the hubris that says that we are somehow uniquely superb and immune.”

The University of North Carolina, too, should avoid “denial” and “hubris.”

Jane S. Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.