Commentary, Education, Higher Ed, Legislature

Editorial: Despite controversy, UNC system has high marks among alumni

UNC Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith

Despite a reactionary Board of Governors that’s struggled mightily in its erratic handling of Silent Sam, picked bizarre fights with its administrators, frightened its own leaders out the door, and, most recently, traipsed heedlessly over open meetings laws, a recent Gallup survey found UNC alumni overwhelmingly believe their education in the 16-campus system has been a boon.

The Winston-Salem Journal‘s editorial board applauded the poll’s results this weekend, but warned that the omnipresent controversy swirling about the system’s controlling board may soon be a hindrance.

The paper’s right. UNC leaders need a swift reappraisal of their priorities, coincidentally the priorities of an extraordinarily right-wing state legislature. North Carolina is, all things considered, a purple state, but its brain-trust on the BOG and in the legislature governs deep in the red.

Read on for the paper’s editorial:

Alumni of the University of North Carolina system are in a better position than most people to judge how good a job the system’s 16 schools are doing.

Across the state, there are always plenty of people ready to criticize this or that in the system and fret over how much it all costs. But if you want the insight of those who in a position to know, ask people who studied at one of the schools and who have drawn on that experience as they make their way through adult life.

That’s why the positive results of a recent Gallup survey of 77,695 UNC system alumni are worthy of attention.

An impressive 64% of those who responded to the survey said they strongly agreed that their undergraduate education was worth its cost. By way of comparison, that’s 11% better than among similar alumni groups from public institutions across the country, and 14% better than among graduates of all colleges.

Responses of UNC system alumni also showed why they feel so strongly that their education was worthwhile: They’ve put the education to good use. They have higher than average rates of advanced degrees after college, and their average personal and household income figures are considerably higher than those of college graduates across the nation.

So, controversies and rising costs notwithstanding, that’s pretty strong evidence that the UNC system is doing a good job and making a difference in the lives of the people who study there.

There is one cloud worth noting in this otherwise rosy report. The respondents to the survey were older and whiter than the total population of alumni, about 77% white and with an average age of 48. It would be useful to hear from more minority alums, and from younger graduates.

Gallup officials said that the skewed results were typical: those are the groups that tend to be more responsive to surveys, and it happens everywhere, so national comparisons are still valid.

In practical terms, what do these positive results mean? They should mean that taxpayers, legislators and other leaders will see how important it is to make a UNC system education accessible to as many people as possible. These results are strong arguments for working to keep tuition affordable and to offer financial aid for deserving students who might not go to college otherwise.

The positive results are also reason to continue to invest in the people and facilities that make a UNC education so worthwhile.

And this evidence that the UNC system has been doing a lot right, for a long time, makes a strong case that legislators and the UNC Board of Governors should work to attract good administrators and then let them do their jobs.

The positive survey results are definitely not a reason to be complacent and think that the university system will continue to be successful no matter what. Attempts by the board and legislators to micromanage the universities, tinker with the curriculum and demand that schools be run as businesses will take their toll on outcomes and attitudes. So will turmoil of the sort we’ve seen with three top system administrators leaving in the first three months of this year.

The Gallup survey is strong evidence that, over the last several decades, North Carolina’s university system has served its people well.

Let’s do all we can to build on that strong foundation.

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