Op-Ed

A free-market agenda that threatens UNC system

Andrew Kelly
Andrew Kelly

The recent hiring of Andrew P. Kelly as the UNC system’s senior vice president for strategy and policy is a sign of what UNC system president Margaret Spellings and her Republican backers have in mind for the future of public higher education in North Carolina.

Kelly, who received his Ph.D. in political science from UC-Berkeley in 2013, comes to his $245,000 per year UNC system job from the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank in Washington, D.C.

Like Spellings, Kelly has no experience as an educator, other than a stint as a graduate teaching assistant. Also like Spellings, he has ties to the Bush family, recently serving as a policy adviser to Jeb Bush’s failed presidential campaign.

The AEI, for which Kelly wrote about higher education policy, is the tool of its ultraconservative funders, which include the Olin, Scaife, Lynde and Harry Bradley, Adolph Coors and Smith Richardson Foundations. Other super wealthy supporters, including Charles and David Koch, give the AEI millions of dollars through dark money channels, such as DonorsTrust.

What donors get for their money is ideological support for a free-market, anti-regulation, anti-labor agenda. AEI “scholars” produce op-eds, reports and policy discussion papers that oppose raising the minimum wage, support voter ID laws, oppose single-payer health care, oppose tougher regulations on Wall Street banksters and deny climate change.

What comes out of the AEI is not scholarship but pseudo-scholarship tailored to advance the economic interests of its funders. This is the world from which Kelly comes to UNC, to undertake the task of making policies that stand to affect the quality of public higher education in North Carolina for generations to come.

In fairness, one might say that what matters more than where Kelly comes from are the ideas he brings with him. These ideas are easy to find. Kelly has published articles and edited books on how to reform higher education.

One big idea that Kelly pushes is that tuition has soared in recent decades because government loans to college students have provided an open spigot of money, leading to profligate spending by university administrators and giving them an irresistible incentive to keep raising tuition to further fuel that spending.

As a result of this vicious cycle, Kelly argues, affordability has suffered, universities have avoided accountability and low-quality institutions, as well as programs of dubious career value, have been kept artificially alive. The solution is to let the market operate as it should.

“Consumers,” which is Kelly’s term for parents and students, should be told of the likely monetary payoff of degrees in different fields from different institutions, so they can better decide how to spend their tuition dollars. There should also be cheaper alternatives to traditional classes and degree programs; for example, short-term, skills-focused online instruction.

What impedes these reforms? A major obstacle, Kelly says, is the current system of accreditation, which leaves power in the hands of faculty, who want only to keep competitors out of the market and preserve the status quo. As an alternative, Kelly suggests giving the accreditation role to state governments.

Curiously missing from Kelly’s analysis of rising tuition costs and college affordability is attention to the role played by a decline in direct state funding. In the 1970s, states on average provided about 75 percent of funding for public higher education. Today, the figure is about 25 percent. Tuition rates have risen to make up the difference.

In other words, affordability is now a problem because the burden of paying for college has been shifted onto the backs of middle-class families. Kelly ignores this, likely because of why the shift has occurred: the anti-tax and shrink-the-government policies championed by outfits like the American Enterprise Institute.

When self-proclaimed reformers are in league with those whose aims and policies have caused economic hardship for working-class and middle-class families, it’s hard to take seriously those reformers’ claims to be driven by concerns for affordability, though this rhetoric makes for good public relations.

The real goals of the AEI’s “billionaire class” sponsors in regard to public universities have long been clear: turn them into engines of profit making; use them to train scientists, managers, pro-business analysts, and professionals; and, to the extent possible, do not allow them to promote critical thought about the concentrations of wealth and power in America.

To his credit, Kelly seems to have recognized, at least at one time, that administrative bloat – the proliferation of highly paid presidents, vice presidents, vice chancellors and the like, along with armies of staff assistants – is part of what ails higher education and drives up costs. With his new job, he becomes part of that problem, too.

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University.

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