NC market needs and a patient investment in higher education

N.C. Gov. Thomas Bickett
N.C. Gov. Thomas Bickett Library of Congress

Two decades ago, the world looked promising for electronic pagination systems workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, armed with the kind of confidence known only to oracles and mathematicians, predicted 83 percent growth in employment for electronic typesetters between 1994 and 2005. As newspapers and magazines sped toward the digital future, those with the skills to “use a computer screen to call up type and art elements from computer memory and position them into a completed page” were looking forward to job security and prosperity.

Of course, it hasn’t panned out that way. As page design became heavily automated and print publications struggled, many would-be pagination specialists had to adapt their skills to new lines of work.

The travails of digital typesetters – and Labor Department forecasters – came to mind while listening to Gov. Pat McCrory speak at UNC-Chapel Hill earlier this month. He had kind words for the university’s history and a starker vision for its future.

“To ensure we get a return on our investment, universities must decrease the job gap,” he said, “by honing in on the skills and subjects employers need.” If higher education fails to meet the demands of business, he warned, companies will pick up and move elsewhere.

These are not unreasonable concerns. North Carolina spends a generous amount of taxpayer money on each of its public college graduates, and policymakers are right to look after that investment. There’s nothing wrong, as the governor put it, with asking for “qualitative results.”

Indeed, the state’s 1776 constitution gives a respectful nod to the utilitarian impulse, holding that “all useful Learning shall be duly encouraged.” The adjective is hard to miss.

The trouble arises in defining “useful” and deciding how and when to measure the returns on an education. The governor’s formulation – “Universities must adapt to ever-changing market needs” – casts the state as a fickle investor, angling for short-term gains. Today’s urgent market needs are tomorrow’s bygone career, as a lot of former typesetters can tell you.

The best investors don’t care who’s up and who’s down at the end of the quarter; they’re holding for the long run. And a university education is very much a long-run bet. It’s not about the first job, or the second. It’s about the whole arc of a long and varied career. Or, if we can allow ourselves to think a little larger, a full and meaningful life.

The returns of the public university aren’t measured by the earning potential or employment statistics of 23-year-olds, but by the long-range prosperity and civic health of North Carolina. That kind of vision takes patience, a virtue little rewarded in politics but much needed in governance.

Thomas Bickett, who served as governor of North Carolina from 1917 to 1921, made his very last proclamation a call to “keep boys and girls in college,” despite the financial hardship then afflicting the state. “Few men who are now 50 years old or over were able to go through college without indebtedness on the part of themselves or their parents,” Bickett wrote. “Yet in all my acquaintance with men throughout the state, I have never found one who regretted the money spent, the sacrifices made, or the debts incurred, for his own or his children’s education.”

It is noteworthy that Bickett was canvassing graduates over 50, men who had lived long enough to understand the full value of their time in school. “We should economize in almost every other way, but in God’s name let there be no stint in education or religion,” Bickett proclaimed. He wasn’t aiming for better-salaried youth, but for the upbuilding of a whole state and society.

None of this renders higher education beyond accounting. But a certain modesty is needed when trying to divine the “market needs” of the future.

Employers themselves seem to understand this. A 2012 survey by the Center for Creative Leadership found that business executives are most interested in things like effective communication, motivation, discipline, self-awareness and learning agility. And a report just last month by the N.C. Commerce Department found that employers ranked educational credentials above technical skills among their most pressing needs.

Businesses, then, are looking for something broader and more lasting than a specialized skill set. And that’s what universities are meant to offer.

The idea that we can no longer afford such a deep and rich education, and must instead focus on immediate returns, is nonsense. North Carolina is a richer state now than it was last year and a vastly richer state than it was in Gov. Bickett’s day. State policymakers are quick to point out that our economy is growing, which means there will be more wealth within our borders next year than ever before.

If somehow our public institutions go begging, that is not a problem of hardship but of choice. We can choose to cash out our historic investments in public higher education, narrowing our horizon to the immediate wants of today’s favored employers.

Or we can persist in the patient business of educating our people for a future that remains stubbornly and wonderfully unknown to us. It is our decision to make.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill.