Archives

News

It’s certainly not the highest-profile issue, but the new $21.74 billion state budget (whenever it does get passed) could usher in a new approach to higher education in the state.

Earlier House and Senate versions of the budget endorsed giving Western Governors University, an online-based higher education system, a bigger footprint in the state, and one propped up with taxpayer money.

At this point, there are more questions than answers about what will end up in the final state budget, with House and Senate lawmakers now two months behind issuing a budget for the next two years.

WGU

WGU headquarters in Utah

Western Governors University, or WGU, is a non-profit online college, started in 1995 by a bipartisan group of governors in the western part of the country. It specializes in reaching out to “part-way home” students, those that had taken some college courses but because of life or family choices before obtaining a degree.

(Click here to read a previous article about WGU’s foray into North Carolina.)

It costs students approximately $3,000 for unlimited classes during a 6-month period and uses a competency-based model, where students can get credits for classes if they already know the material and can pass a test showing that.

Here in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory is in favor of bringing WGU to the state, and had a meeting at the Executive Mansion in November with Robert Mendenhall, the CEO of the Utah-based University.

In their proposal, House members suggested letting students attending WGU to tap into a $90 million pool of state money used for need-based aid to students attending private colleges in the state.

The Senate took a different approach, and would give the Utah-based college $2 million in state money to set up shop here, with the possibility of drawing down $5 million more if private funds are also raised.

As expected, WGU has both proponents and critics.

It’s hailed by supporters as a fairly low-cost way for older students who may be busy working to finish their degrees, while critics say it offers an inferior education and undermines existing offerings at universities and community colleges.

The $6,000 annual cost for a year at WGU is much lower than what for-profit online colleges like the University of Phoenix and Strayer University can cost.

But it is on par, or close to what UNC system institutions charged this year in tuition and fees, which range from $4,655 a year at Elizabeth City State University to $8,407 at N.C. State University for the 2015-16 school year.

WGU currently has a six-year graduation rate of 38 percent, a rate they hope to increase, which is much lower than the 63.1 percent that graduate from UNC institutions in six years.

Not everyone’s thrilled at the prospect of WGU coming to the state.

John Fennebresque, the chair of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors, says the state’s existing higher education institutions can do more for North Carolina-based students than WGU can.

He attended the November meeting McCrory had with WGU in November.

“We can do all that within the (UNC) system,” Fennebresque said in an interview this week with N.C. Policy Watch. He added, “I saw nothing that they offer that we don’t or can’t do.”

Commentary

As reported in this space on Tuesday, the UNC Board of Governors took action recently to eliminate or consolidate 46 degree programs across the system. The authors of an editorial in this morning’s edition of the Wilmington Star News smell an ideological agenda and are rightfully critical of the move:

“What’s notable, though, is the pattern of the cuts. Music, art and theater programs took big hits, as did programs in African-American studies, women’s studies and Hispanic studies. Programs to train foreign language teachers in French and German were axed at ECU, and math education and Latin were eliminated at UNC-Greensboro.

In some cases, the argument was that many of these programs had few students enrolled, so continuing to offer them wasted money. More generally, though, the Governors appear to be following the lead of Gov. Pat McCrory and his pal Art Pope – slashing back on classes that aren’t directly training students for a career.

McCrory, after all, famously remarked that anyone who wants to study gender issues should do so at a private university (and, incidentally, hope their daddies can pay the tuition).

The ultimate object of this seems to be to retract the UNC system into a network of pre-professional trade schools, supporting values that the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (funded by Art Pope’s family) identifies as ‘the morality of capitalism’ and ‘limits on government.’

That’s simply wrong. “Liberal education” doesn’t mean studying the collected works of Nancy Pelosi or Rachel Maddow; it refers to teaching students to think independently. That requires exposure to the fine arts, to alien points of view and to foreign cultures.

Cutting funds to train a future generation of high school foreign-language teachers is especially wrongheaded, at a time when we’re told we have to compete in a “global” economy. How can we do that if we don’t understand what the other person is saying?

Click here to read the entire editorial.

Commentary

Be sure to check out Tazra Mitchell’s excellent essay over on the main Policy Watch site this afternoon: “Governor McCrory’s flat budget proposal ignores research and reality.” As Tazra explains, the state is cutting essential services to provide enrollment growth increases in education and health care. As a practical matter, everything else remains frustratingly and destructively stuck in neutral:

“With his 2015-2017 budget, Governor McCrory chose to ignore the need for reinvestment in public education, health, safety, and the other programs that improve well-being for us all. Total state investments under his 2016 fiscal year budget proposal would be 6.1 percent below pre-recession levels, adjusting for inflation. North Carolina’s lived experience shows us this is the wrong way to go—in past economic recoveries, state investments returned to and exceeded pre-recession levels far more quickly. Our former leaders understood that investing in the infrastructure of opportunity spurs economic growth.

Governor McCrory’s spending plan, in large part, freezes state investments at a time when his priority should be to roll back harmful budget cuts enacted since the downturn. His budget for the 2016 fiscal year increases year-to-year spending by nearly $439.8 million, or two percent, but the costs of enrollment growth in public schools, the UNC system, and the Medicaid/Health Choice programs are estimated to slightly exceed that year-to-year increase. That means every new dollar, on net, is dedicated to funding enrollment growth rather than replacing budget cuts that stifle economic mobility or pursuing new initiatives to position the state competitively.

And despite promises that the 2013 tax cut for the wealthy would deliver a huge boom to the economy, North Carolina has experienced nothing of the sort. Job growth has largely followed national trends in recent years, but we still have not gotten back to the level of employment—when accounting for population growth—that was the norm before the recession. Wages in North Carolina have slipped further behind the national average and are not even keeping up with inflation, which means many people’s paychecks do not go as far as they did before the downturn.

So the promise of an economic boost from tax cuts has failed to pan out, but state leaders are sticking with those cuts rather than reinvesting in the long-term building blocks of opportunity and prosperity like schools and environmental protection.”

Click here to read the entire article.

Commentary

Tom Ross_1162015If you haven’t done so already, check out Charlotte Observer contributor Alice Carmichael Richey’s essay decrying the UNC Board of Governor’s inexplicable firing of system president, Tom Ross (pictured at left).

As Richey argues persuasively, the Board’s actions simply ought not to be allowed to stand in their present form — i.e. unexplained.

“The board acknowledged its decision had nothing to do with Ross’s ‘performance or ability to continue in the office’ and was made despite the board’s belief that he ‘has been a wonderful president’ with a ‘fantastic work ethic’ and ‘perfect integrity’ who ‘worked well with [the] Board.’”

After quoting the board chair, she goes on:

“All of this begs at least two questions: Why did the board make this decision and, no less important in light of public reaction, will the board reconsider? Read More

Commentary

If you’re still scratching your head trying to figure out what was behind last week’s decision by the UNC Board of Governor’s to end its relationship with system President Tom Ross, be sure to read today’s Fitzsimon File where Chris works to unravel the mystery. Here’s an excerpt:

A politically appointed board unexpectedly fires a popular and respected president with no notice or no explanation and nobody even owns up to pushing for him to resign.

The head of the board then insists that it wasn’t politics that prompted the president’s dismissal, and says his age wasn’t a factor either, and then proceeds to talk about the incredible job the president is doing.

There is a conspiracy here all right, a carefully orchestrated plan by right-wing political interests to complete their takeover of the state by firing the head of the university system, a public institution that they have been seeking to dismantle for years.

Read Chris’ full column here, and click below to hear Board Chair John Fennebresque try to explain their decision to part ways with President Ross:
YouTube Preview Image