Last week, leaders of the state’s public university unveiled a sweeping economic impact study, detailing all the ways UNC campuses contribute to the wealth of the state.
It’s a remarkable document not just for the size and precision of the numbers – $27.9 billion in state income; 426,052 jobs; 1,695 new inventions! – but for what it says about our civic culture.
We live in an era when policymakers take seriously the notion that public services ought to show a clear return on investment or face extinction. Economic impact numbers, no matter how speculative, drive the debate. They become bullet points in briefing papers, talking points in speeches – fodder for all those who think monetary return is the most compelling measure of earthly value.
We come up with dense formulas and claim with a straight face to know how many jobs might be created from medical research in the next 10 years, or how much future prison spending might be avoided by boosting college enrollment. We insist that taxpayers will see an 11.8 percent return on higher education spending, “a solid investment that compares favorably with other long-term investments in both the private and public sectors,” according to the study conducted by Economic Modeling Specialists International.
We want to know how one dollar might efficiently be turned into two, and then two dollars into four. We are so busy calculating returns that we can scarcely remember what money is for.
And that’s why our proud public university, a bastion of science and literature and civic uplift for more than two centuries, will spend the rest of the legislative session touting its powers of wealth creation. Light, liberty and a benefit-cost ratio of 3.9! I sincerely hope that message resonates with skeptical lawmakers.
I also hope we can spare a moment for another set of data, a survey quietly released last month to no fanfare or public notice.
It aimed to answer the same fundamental question – “Is college worth it?” – through the highly innovative approach of asking people. A sample of 50,000 alumni of UNC campuses were asked whether they felt satisfied with their college educations. Ninety-four percent said they were.
That resounding endorsement held true across all age ranges, from mid-career alumni to freshly minted graduates, according to the research by the Massachusetts firm Abt SRBI. Almost 90 percent of public campus graduates would recommend their alma maters to family and friends, and 80 percent think college prepared them well for life. More than 80 percent think college enhanced their career prospects.
These are all subjective findings, of course. And that is precisely the point. Education was meant to improve human well-being, and that is a bigger and more elusive charge than boosting GDP. It’s a tougher thing to measure.
Certainly a growing economy – more businesses, more money, more goods and services changing hands – can be a boon to health and happiness. But we too often confuse means and ends. We forget that economies are meant for people, not the other way around. We want a better economy not for its own sake, but because we hope for better lives.
Education, overwhelmingly, answers that hope. We can try to measure such things in dollars, or we can get straight to the point and ask: Is your life better for what you know, for what you’ve learned? Are you better off for the thoughts and memories you have now that you didn’t have before? Was school or college a worthy way of spending your time?
Find me the return-on-investment formula that answers those questions, and I’ll appraise your soul with an abacus.
Economic growth is important, but we should take care to see such headline measures for what they are – instrumental means to greater human ends.
Wealth is a fine thing, and our state needs more of it in far more places. But we have needs that are higher and greater than money alone. Our public life ought to speak to those, as well.
Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works for UNC-Chapel Hill, serves on The N&O’s Reader Panel and speaks for no one but himself.