Point of View

UNC colleges lead to light, liberty and leaders for tomorrow

February 1, 2013 

In a radio show Tuesday, Gov. Pat McCrory said he wants to change the way higher education is funded in North Carolina. He said that state money should be allotted toward education that will train students for jobs and away from academic pursuits “that have no chance of getting people jobs.”

According to McCrory, he plans to draft legislation so that universities and community colleges in the UNC system are funded “not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”

Assessing the value of a UNC education only in terms of whether it helps plug graduates into existing jobs is a little like deciding to marry someone based on the number of kids they want: It’s not that the issue is unimportant. It’s just that there are other critically important issues that should also be factored into the equation. Meeting current workforce needs is one major purpose of UNC higher education, but other purposes are every bit as significant.

Education prepares students not just to compete for existing jobs, but to adapt in a rapidly changing economy. Given the fast pace of change in the economy, we can’t know exactly what skills future jobs will require. But education gives students the skills, habits and breadth of perspective they need to keep up with the curve – indeed even to set the curve.

Had past generations prepared young citizens only for tobacco farms and mills in this state, they couldn’t have taken advantage of opportunities in technology and health care.

Furthermore, the economic value of an education extends beyond the gain from individual graduates filling specific jobs that require college degrees. Studies show that an educated population contributes to long-term economic growth. Growth results in higher wages for all categories of workers – even those without college degrees.

As Jim Hunt once told Bill Friday, businesses were attracted to North Carolina because we offered a premier higher education system, and the jobs they brought radically improved the state’s economy for all residents.

Yet considering the value of a UNC degree even in these broader economic terms ignores much of its value. Education helps students take control of their lives and decide their place in the world. The self-discipline and autonomy that students learn is partly the reason that college graduates not only earn more, they also have longer life expectancies and are less often single parents.

Education also gives students the breadth of mind to see not just the way the world is, but the way that it could be. The promise of the UNC system is not just to slot the next generation into current or even future jobs: It’s to give our next generation of young adults the critical abilities they need to decide what kind of world they want to make for themselves collectively, and the tools they need to improve upon the world we’ve left them.

Higher education also secures democracy. It’s no coincidence that the N.C. General Assembly chartered the university the same year that North Carolina received statehood. The founders recognized that a democracy like ours cannot function well unless its citizens have the broad knowledge and critical capacities necessary to hold their representatives to account. The university’s seal, “light and liberty,” recognizes the link between knowledge and freedom.

UNC not only creates an informed citizenry, it also educates the youths who will one day be its leaders. As Thomas Jefferson counseled, one purpose of the public university is “[t]o form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.”

These many benefits of a UNC education are not capable of easy tallying on an economic ledger. This makes these benefits too often dismissed in a society that seeks a quick buck and uncomplicated answers. But it makes them no less valuable.

This is not to say that the UNC system has always done a good job fulfilling the many purposes it serves. No doubt it has fallen short in many areas at many times. Yet the answer to these shortfalls is not to abandon support for higher education in North Carolina, but to work to improve it. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance.”

Maxine Eichner is a Reef Ivey II Professor of Law at UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill.

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