Point of View

Advancing by degrees at UNC

November 10, 2012 

Back in December 2008, a College Board report called for finding ways to ensure that at least 55 percent of young adults are receiving community-college degrees or higher by 2025. In response to this and other calls to action, state policymakers and high education leaders began to set forth specific goals for increasing their pipeline of postsecondary graduates.

This is the context for UNC system President Tom Ross’s recent charge to the Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions to come up with an aspirational degree-attainment goal for our public four-year institutions. Committee members are deliberating a range of reasonable “data-driven” estimates of UNC’s contribution to the state’s overall education attainment goal for 2018.

Where does North Carolina stand today? Based on 2011 Census data, 28.2 percent of our working-age population (ages 24-65) had a BA degree or more (19.2 percent BA, 9.2 percent graduate or professional). Including industry certifications, AA degrees, etc., 60.6 percent of working-age adults have had “some college or more.”

Moreover, comparing across age cohorts, attainment rates (BA or more) are generally improving: 20.5 percent for age 65 and over; 28.6 percent for 45-64; 30.9 percent for 35-44; and a slight decrease to 29.5 percent for our youngest cohort, ages 24-34.

These numbers result from a range of factors, including industry mix, demographics and in-migration. Our leading metro areas already place well in the “100-best” rankings in BA or more degree attainment, with the Triangle seventh at 54.3 percent, Charlotte at 42.3 percent (29th) and Greensboro at 33.6 percent (80th). The Research Triangle Park region in particular finds itself in fast company, along with metros such as Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Stamford-Norwalk, San Francisco-Oakland, Madison and Boston-Cambridge.

Clearly, the UNC committee is wrestling with big questions about our higher education future. Should the university system project a degree-attainment goal for 2018 or for a later date? Are we producing college graduates only for our state, or for national and global labor markets? Even more fundamentally, how important is rising education attainment to the economic growth of our state?

The ways in which such questions are answered will have huge implications for the future of North Carolina.

In terms of individual benefits, robust data demonstrate that people (on average) with more education make more money than those with less education. There is also evidence to suggest that industry certificates, in some cases, can pay more than two-year degrees and sometimes pay more than four-year degrees.

In addition to the difference in higher lifetime earnings, higher education is accompanied by lower rates of unemployment and underemployment (even though both rates have risen considerably for the most-educated during the Great Recession). There is no doubt that during the slow and bumpy recovery from the recession, we’ve had our share of “BA baristas,” to invoke the familiar anecdote.

Note, too, that there is evidence of nonmonetary returns to education. Studies have shown that experiences and skills acquired in college reverberate, affecting many aspects of life in addition to levels of earning. There is evidence that people with increased years of schooling may also be more prone to contribute to the public good, broadly defined.

At a state or regional level, numerous studies have established links between investments in human capital generally (and in higher education specifically) and economic growth. Until recently, such studies had difficulty distinguishing between correlation and causation, rendering the relationship between higher education and economic growth hard to interpret.

In the last few years, however, impressive research by economists and economic historians has established with empirical rigor the causal links between investment in higher education and long-term economic growth in the U.S. Such studies need to be kept in mind as we continue the dialogue regarding future degree-attainment goals at UNC, which currently accounts for about 70 percent of the four-year degrees earned annually in North Carolina.

This injunction is particularly true because one of the recent studies – from the Brookings Institution in 2009 – stresses that the returns from investment in higher education, particularly research expenditures, are even greater in states (such as North Carolina) near the “technological frontier.”

The evidence thus lends credibility to UNC Strategic Directions Committee’s modest aspirational goal of contributing to a four-year college-degree or more attainment rate of 32 percent by 2018. With a high-quality, affordable academic experience and exposure to knowledge, skills and internship placements, more of our young adults will learn how to learn and earn – equipping themselves with the tools that will allow them to answer questions that nobody can even envision in 2012.

With the “32 percent by 2018” goal, North Carolina will join the top quartile of high-population, high education-attainment growth states, precisely the kind of company we want and need to keep.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome distinguished professor of history and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. Daniel P. Gitterman is associate professor of public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill and a senior fellow at the Global Research Institute.

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