Should college be a meandering journey of intellectual exploration or a straight line to a good job? What’s more worthwhile for today’s undergraduate – Aristotle or aerospace engineering? Biotech or British lit?
There’s no right answer, but UNC system leaders are thinking that college and career should be linked more closely for the sake of students and the state’s economy. In the past few months, a panel of corporate, higher education and government leaders has pored over projections about North Carolina’s future workforce as it crafts a five-year strategy for the state’s public universities.
The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions may set a goal of boosting the percentage of college degree earners among North Carolina adults from 28 percent to 31 or 32 percent by 2018. It’s also looking at quality and efficiency and whether a UNC education is adequately preparing students for 21st-century jobs.
The debate comes at a time when American higher education faces heightened pressure. The public is demanding more accountability as tuition rises and college completion lags. Student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in the United States. Newly minted, underemployed college grads are beginning to wonder whether their diploma really is the ticket to prosperity.
A 2012 study from Rutgers University reported that slightly more than half of recent college graduates had full-time jobs and only four in 10 said their current job required a four-year degree. That same survey found that the majority of graduates were happy with their college education but if they had it to do over, they would have picked a different major or tried career internships.
Against this backdrop, the committee’s practical considerations are essential, members of the panel say.
“I don’t think we can afford to not only spend the money but charge the money to students excessively and they can’t get a job,” said Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive who leads a small group gathering data for the UNC committee. “Nobody’s going to be happy.”
But all the job talk is making some people uneasy.
At a recent community forum at UNC-Chapel Hill, María DeGuzmán, professor of English and comparative literature, warned that the liberal arts could become subservient to the obsession with jobs. She also criticized the makeup of the UNC strategy group, which is composed largely of corporate, government and university leaders, but only one faculty member and one student.
“Reducing university education to, quote, getting a job,” she said, “is to capitulate to the worst sort of – as William Faulkner would have said – jobism.”
Kevin Kimball, a UNC-CH senior from Beaufort and the only student on the UNC committee, said there has to be a balance. He told UNC leaders that universities should put more emphasis on career advising, with more staff who can help students choose the right major, gain internships and understand career options after graduation.
“Everyone wants a job when they get out of college,” Kimball said. “At the same time, I don’t think students believe the sole object of a university education is employment.”
‘We can do both’
Peter Hans of Raleigh, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, has said the panel recognizes that higher education is about more than the pursuit of job credentials.
“Education is crucial to our culture and our democracy, not just our economy,” he said. “But it isn’t an either/or choice. We can and should do both.”
To that end, Hans has called for UNC campuses to disseminate data on the jobs and earnings of graduates by major.
“We could arm students with the information they need to prepare themselves for their futures, whatever choices they make – computer science, political science, health care or the performing arts,” he said.
Brett Carter, head of Duke Energy’s operations in North Carolina, suggested that students could be steered to areas of future job growth.
“I think we should be trying to funnel them toward where the opportunities are going to be,” he said. “It’s the Wayne Gretzky of trying to skate to where the puck’s going to be as opposed to where it is.”
Tom Ross, president of the UNC system, agreed that students deserve information on where their job prospects might be.
“Students are now more focused on their future and the investment that they’re making,” he said. “There’s more attention that people are giving to the resources it requires to get a college degree and then once you’ve invested in it, what is the likelihood of a return? That’s coming from both parents and students, so I think it’s an appropriate question, but it’s not all there is about college.”
A study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2018, 59 percent of jobs in North Carolina would require some education beyond high school.
A few good guesses for areas of expansion are health care, biotechnology, energy and “big data,” the management and manipulation of gigantic databases. But some future careers are a question mark because they will grow out of new industry not yet envisioned.
“Technology is changing so much faster than we can teach or people can change their skills,” said Daniel Gitterman, professor of public policy at UNC-CH. “We’ve just got a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”
That uncertainty is OK, said Randy Woodson, chancellor of N.C. State University.
“It’s difficult to say we need this many engineers, this many nurses,” he said, “you know, to pigeonhole higher education based on precise workforce needs at the time. The value of public higher education is that we’re constantly reacting to changing needs in society, always attuned to the underpinning need for an educated citizenry.”
Woodson uses the example of Germany to paint a contrast to American higher education. There, students are put into a career pipeline early based on test scores. They are trained very well in apprenticeships, but students have very little flexibility.
“In this country, because of the way the system works, you’re able to continually reinvent yourself,” he said. “And that is frustrating for us when we have kids change majors three times, but I think, I fundamentally believe, it’s one of the reasons why our country is one of the most innovative in the world....The education system allows for innovation.”
Needed: Soft skills
In the next few weeks, UNC will conduct regional meetings across North Carolina to get feedback from employers about priorities for future economic growth and what role the university might play in those efforts.
UNC leaders are likely to hear a repeat of what North Carolina employers said in a 2012 survey, in which they described a gap in “soft skills” such as communication, critical thinking and problem solving.
National surveys have shown a clamor for employees who have good speaking and writing skills and analytical reasoning ability. Those are skills best developed in the liberal arts disciplines rather than pre-professional courses.
Liz Whitfield, a UNC-CH junior from Cary, has crafted an unusual course of study with a double major in Peace, War and Defense and Hispanic Linguistics. She’s a strong believer in liberal arts.
“It’s supposed to broaden your intellectual horizons and just let you experience a lot of different things,” she said. “And I think all of that is valuable because, you know, it helps you learn how to think, learn how to evaluate critically, it helps your writing skills. It’s not as if it’s not useful for later employment, because I think it really is, it’s just not designed to be directly applicable to like a certain job or career.”
Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, was in Chapel Hill this fall to talk about public research universities. He made the point that 25 years ago, the IT field, or information technology, didn’t exist. Now it employs hundreds of thousands.
A good education offers students the ability to think for themselves and adapt to a rapidly changing environment, said Rawlings, a classics scholar and former president of the University of Iowa and Cornell University.
“My business friends, interestingly, are more and more saying, ‘Please, just give me a liberal arts student. I can train the student. I can get the student going in my job....But I want somebody to think and write and speak and not sound like a dunderhead.’ ”
Beyond making a good taxpaying worker, a college education correlates to tangential benefits to society, Ross and others have said. People with college degrees, for example, tend to have lower health care costs, need less government assistance and are incarcerated at lower rates.
“It just needs to be said that there’s other things about getting a college degree that are good other than getting a job,” said UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp. “People with college degrees are better citizens, they’re healthier, they’re better prepared to engage in the world, they’re better parents, they’re better neighbors, they’re better people to go to church with. And that’s something that has been really important to this state and this country for a long, long time.”