Some folks measure the value of higher education solely by how much its graduates make.
Most of us know there’s a lot more to it.
In a column last week, John Hood of the John Locke Foundation contends that North Carolinians don’t receive an adequate return on what he calls a “relatively large” investment in the University of North Carolina System.
In a classic example of viewing education as a private rather than public good, Hood cites a Texas-based outfit that measures return on investment only by comparing the earnings of graduates. By its measure, the University of South Dakota ranks best in the country in lifetime returns.
He also cites a report from the James G. Martin Center that recommends phasing out programs in law, pharmacy, dentistry and social work at UNC-Chapel Hill and law at NC Central University, as well as fine-arts degrees and language, psychology and liberal-arts degrees at other campuses.
Regarding such programs, even Hood acknowledges “most of the students who enter them know very well their chosen careers are unlikely to be lucrative. They have chosen those careers because they value other forms of compensation more — personal fulfillment, a calling to help others, or a desire to live and work in a particular kind of community.”
He goes on to suggest they can be reduced to two- or three-year degrees, without explaining how.
Hood conveniently omits the state constitution’s mandate to provide North Carolinians with a college education for “as far as practicable … free of expense.”
And to contend that the state doesn’t see substantial return on investment from its investment in the UNC System is simply absurd.
As UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Chris Clemens – an acknowledged conservative himself – laid out in a November column, the state gets more than its money’s worth for the $540 million a year it invests in UNC-Chapel Hill.
“The first thing our faculty and staff do is multiply the money by raising $1.16 billion more dollars in externally-funded research, an amount that places UNC in the top 10 federally-funded research universities in the US, higher than Harvard, MIT, or UCLA. Research at UNC develops new cancer therapies, supports highway safety, helps understand the effect of storm surges on the nation’s coastlines, and even discovers new exoplanets. Research money employs about 9,500 people in 90 counties of North Carolina, and generates $90 million in purchases from 6,500 businesses in 95 of our counties,” Clemens wrote.
Not to mention that UNC grad Kizzmekia Corbett helped develop the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19.
That’s not a bad return on investment – or service to mankind.
The university collects over $400 million in tuition from 30,000 students – some portion comes from outside the state, while the rest keeps North Carolina students at home “while providing the #1 best bargain in higher education for the student from North Carolina,” Clemens wrote.
Those students come from 98 North Carolina counties, 40% of them from rural areas.
“Eighteen percent of these students will be the first in their families to graduate from college. They will become the physicians, lawyers, artists, historians, business executives, government leaders, engineers, and teachers of tomorrow. They will emerge with a great education, a diploma from one of the top five ranked public universities, and well-prepared to be the workforce of the future that will attract new industries to North Carolina,” Clemens wrote.
As Winston-Salem businessman Don Flow puts it, “The UNC System is the most important institution for creating economic wealth in North Carolina.” The UNC System granted more than 62,000 degrees last year to graduates who will help fuel North Carolina’s booming economy.
Inventions from UNC-Chapel Hill have led to formation of at least 274 NC companies, Clemens wrote.
“These companies employ over 9,000 North Carolina citizens and generate $14 billion in annual revenue in our state. Together with UNC’s affiliated enterprise, UNC Health, itself a $4B enterprise, these companies and our campus research operations represent 2.9% of the state’s gross domestic product. The estimated tax revenue from this slice of our economy is more than the $540 million in appropriations allocated to us…
“Even though it sounds like a deal that is too good to be true, the public employees of the first and most public university in the US deliver on this promise year after year. It’s an investment the people of North Carolina can make with confidence,” Clemens concluded.11
The UNC System can always improve, of course. But please, don’t try to say there’s not enough ROI on the state’s investment.
David Rice is the executive director of the group Higher Ed Works, which first published this commentary.