- Cooper’s free community college plan is based on flawed assumptions
- North Carolina can already take several steps to develop an educated and skilled workforce. Some of these include: reversing the factors that drive up the costs of higher education, expanding the array of educational options and enhancing college preparation skills in high schools.
Part I of this two-part article discussed Governor Cooper’s plan to provide free community college tuition for eligible students. The plan’s flawed assumptions and shortcomings were also identified. In part II we identify alternatives policymakers can adopt to control the cost of higher education and develop a better educated workforce.
People on the Left and the Right agree that we need a more educated and skilled workforce for our nation to compete economically. Where the two sides differ is on the means of how to bring it about.
We’ve already chronicled the many reasons why North Carolina should not adopt free community college or free college tuition programs. There are several more effective steps the Tar Heel state could adopt to improve education outcomes and the overall skills of our workforce.
Address Factors that Drive the Costs of Higher Education. First, legislators need to address the factors that drive up the costs of higher education. The North Carolina State Constitution provides that the benefits of public education ought to be provided “as far as practicable” free of expense.[i] To honor the spirit of the provision, many cost increases have been added not to tuition but to student fees. In addition to tuition, a typical student at a UNC institution now pays: athletics fees, health services fees, Student activities fees, educational and technology fees, campus security fees and debt service fees. In 2017-18, these fees ranged from a low of $1,712 (UNC-Chapel Hill) to $3,020 (UNC-Charlotte) with most campuses somewhere in between.[ii] Those who watch the UNC system or have a son or daughter attending one of the institutions knows that fees have continued to increase as well as the number of fees charged. Fees at UNC-Charlotte are 80 percent as large as the regular tuition charges ($3,812). Some campuses are lower, but the clear trend in costs is upward. Limits on fee increases and closer monitoring can help to limit cost increases.
Reduce Administrative Bloat. It’s no secret that in recent years colleges have begun spending more and more on administration, often to the detriment of academics. There are administrative positions for marketing, sustainability, recruiting, diversity, technology, fundraising, environmental health and so forth.
In their study on trends in higher education, Todd J. Zywicki and Christopher Koopman of George Mason University noted:[iii]
Universities have increased spending, but very little of that increased spending has been related to classroom instruction; rather, it is being directed toward non-classroom costs. As a result, there has been a growth in academic bureaucracies, as universities focus on hiring employees to manage or administer people, programs, and regulations. Between 2001 and 2011, these sorts of hires have increased 50% faster than the number of classroom instructors. This trend…has become ubiquitous in…American higher education.
Contributing to the high administrative costs is that college administrators are well-paid and since they are usually hired to comply with state and federal regulations, administrators usually have staff to carry out these responsibilities. In 2009, UNC President Erskine Bowles called the unchecked growth of college administrators “an absolute embarrassment” and set out trying to reduce administrative bloat within the UNC System.[iv] His efforts helped, but eight years later another effort is needed.
Reform College Finance and Student Financial Aid Policies. Federal subsidies drive up the cost of higher education. A 2015 Federal Reserve of New York report found evidence for what many had long suspected; federal subsidies are distorting the normal workings of the market. Federal financial aid works to reduce the true cost of higher education to the consumer and also works to inflate enrollment. In so doing it has worked to create and sustain a “bubble” in the higher education market, that will only be resolved by a correction in the market. Financial aid policies should be revised to correct these distortions. For starters, aid policies could be targeted on high need occupation areas to ensure the best returns from the personal and public investment and lower student default rates.
Address the Needs of Community College Students. In addition to redressing factors that have contributed to rising costs in higher education, North Carolina community colleges can do more to encourage young adults to take courses and complete programs. Work and family responsibilities are often the major factors that lead to student dropping out of community colleges. Students on non-traditional schedules find it difficult to attend school on a traditional schedule. A better solution might be to provide mentoring programs, expand online classes or a combination of weekend class or non-traditional options. Such changes can go a long way toward keeping students on track to graduation.
Expand the Array of Educational Opportunities. Apprenticeship programs and academic programs based on the demonstration of competency are two proven ways for young people to learn and gain specific skill sets. Apprenticeship programs in the trades and technical areas are proven ways of addressing the shortage of manpower needs in these areas. In addition, Competency Based Programs (CPBs) (Western Governors University) offer a different way for students to complete a program and gain skills. CPBs can benefit community college students who have had previous experience but have not earned formal credit. CBPs often work with local industry leaders to identify key competencies within their field and design courses that would help demonstrate those skills. CBPs address head on the concern that college students are not learning relevant skills in the classroom.
Enhance College Preparation in High Schools. One reason for the current difficulty is that too many students leave high school ill-prepared for college or the world of work. Most high schools offer a smorgasbord of courses that lack rigor and are often unrelated to student’s academic interests or career plans. Too many students leave high school with little in the way of useful academic knowledge or useful skills like how to make career decisions or manage money. They lack study and life skills necessary for success in college or the workforce. Fortunately, these deficiencies are all correctable. Thankfully a growing number of school orientation or counseling programs are folding courses/sessions to teach life skills such as financial literacy and decision making at modest or reasonable expense to the institution.
One of the greatest challenges facing our nation is the need for a better educated workforce. The Left’s solution is to remove all barriers to education. Democrats and progressives on the Left have introduced free community college and free college tuition programs at the federal and state level. Many states have also approved such programs. Governor Cooper’s free community college program is one such plan. If you’re a student or a parent, “free” college programs can sound very appealing – until you look at the assumptions, costs and the impacts.
Nothing in life is free. Simply calling something free doesn’t make it free. Governor Cooper’s proposal simply shifts who pays the cost of education, in this case the cost is shifted from the student to the taxpayer. His proposals do nothing to address the factors that actually contribute to the ever-rising cost of higher education.
Like most states North Carolina needs a more educated and skilled workforce. Free community college plans are poorly targeted on students who frequently drop out and already have access to student aid dollars and other similar programs designed to allow access to higher education.
Rather than throw more money at a program that will cheapen education and attract less serious students, North Carolina should resist the allure of free community college tuition. A traditional two or four-year college degree is no longer the proxy for talent or a ticket for upward mobility. The exploding array of educational options such as online and personalized learning, apprenticeships and Competency Based Programs offer students an attractive alternative to a traditional college degree, oftentimes with better employment prospects — at a fraction of the cost. It’s time our policies reflect these realities.
[i] North Carolina State Constitution, See: Article IX, Section 9. Copy available online at: https:/www.ncleg.net/Legislation/constitution/ncconstitution.pdf
[ii] UNC Tuition and Fees, 2017-18. Available online at: https://www.northcarolina.edu/sites/default/files/2017-18_ug_tuition_and_fees.pdf
[iii] The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education.” Todd J. Zywicki and Christopher Koopman of George Mason University
[iv] “Bowles Orders UNC to cut from the top” Eric Ferrari, August 39, 2009, The News & Observer.