From Cullowhee to Elizabeth City, thousands of North Carolinians are heading off to college for the first time this month. They will carry hopes, dreams and no small amount of anxiety about the future.
North Carolina’s policymakers share that ambivalence. The question of whether we’re sending too many kids to college – “propagating the myth that everyone has to go to a four-year university,” as Gov. Pat McCrory puts it – has been much debated.
What was once an article of faith – more college graduates would be a good thing, worthy of public investment – now meets great skepticism. The University of North Carolina system wants to raise the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree from 26 to 32, but that plan has gone largely unfunded amid questions about whether our economy needs that many graduates.
I think we ought to send more people to college because our country is rich, our lives are long, and learning about the world is a worthy way of passing the time. But questioning the value of higher education, and especially public higher education, is reasonable. It helps us get back to first principles.
‘Gentlemen, I hope you do not conceive it at all necessary that everybody should be able to read, write, and cipher.” So wrote an indignant citizen in a letter to the Raleigh Register, published as the General Assembly considered school legislation in 1829. Literacy and numeracy might be necessary for lawyers or doctors, the writer allowed, “but if a man is to be a plain farmer, or a mechanic, they are of no manner of use, but a detriment.”
The economy, in other words, didn’t need many literate men. It certainly didn’t need them enough to justify taxes for public schools.
That line of reasoning prevailed in 1829 and for many years thereafter. North Carolina didn’t get around to passing real public school legislation for another decade, and we’ve been arguing about the right way to pay for it since.
But the notion of reading and ciphering as mere extravagance has long since passed. Even mechanics and farmers, it turns out, benefited from a sound public education as the world got bigger and more complicated. And today, as mechanics repair cars with onboard computers and farmers keep tabs on global commodity prices, they are finding quite a lot of use for higher education.
We do not, in other words, have an especially good track record of predicting our future needs.
What we do have is a largely unbroken history of kinship between our country’s educational progress and economic well-being. Standard & Poor’s, the global credit ratings agency, highlighted that very fact in a research paper earlier this month, suggesting ways we might improve America’s economic prospects.
Their big idea for securing American prosperity? Educate more citizens more thoroughly.
“What would be the impact to the economy and to people’s pocketbooks if the US workforce’s pace of education were to reach rates of education seen 50 years ago?” S&P asked. That would mean adding one more year of education, on average, across the workforce during the next five years – mostly by sending people to college. “U.S. potential GDP would likely be $525 billion, or 2.4 percent higher in five years.”
Sounds excellent. Besides, in addition to having more money, we’d know more and discover new stuff and maybe even think better about a wider variety of things. As ancillary benefits go, those aren’t bad.
And that brings us to another, yet older principle that undergirds the fitful expansion of public education in America. Broadly accessible schooling is a fundamentally libertarian idea. It respects the notion – small-d democratic and small-r republican – that talent, intelligence and the capacity for leadership are not confined to some narrow slice of the citizenry.
Public education – from grade schools to high schools to state universities – is meant to expel elitism, to make access to knowledge and power so broad and so free that no smothering caste of elites could emerge. The history of our educational institutions has been a dogged fight to secure them as public goods, to protect them from narrow interests that would seize and hoard their value or close their doors to those who supposedly don’t need a particular kind of ciphering or reading.
Sending more people to college is not elitist – it is American. And insomuch as North Carolina came up with the idea of a public university, sending more people to college is one of the oldest and best tenets of our fair state.
I don’t know what the economy will look like in four or five years, when today’s freshmen will face the world, and I don’t trust anyone who claims to know. I don’t know which of today’s eager students will prove to be skilled leaders, or which of the thousands of kids not attending college might’ve been even more worthy of the opportunity.
But I do know, with reasonable confidence, that North Carolina would be better off if more of us had the chance to read and learn for longer. History tells as much.
Eric Johnson, a Chapel Hill writer, is a 2008 graduate of UNC Chapel Hill.