Mercy or mercenary?

For decades American education lobbyists have convinced our political class that infusing more money into the system will unquestionably improve it. They have failed to produce evidence to prove the assumption. And they’ve gotten away with it, time and time again.

At the state university level fiscal and academic scrutiny and accountability is virtually nonexistent. Taxpayers and students lose ground in money and time wasted. Programs unrelated to academic achievement proliferate. Student bodies increase with little evidence of their prospects for success. Requirements for core curricula have generally disappeared. Grade inflation deflates academic standards. Progressive political activists dominate campus life. Speech has been stifled. Overall, scant evidence exists to support the claim of a positive relationship between university growth and public benefits.

For example, here in North Carolina, as far as I know, no verification exists that the “roughly $9 billion” spent on the massive university system justifies that huge expense. Yet, proposed small reductions in increased funding or improved efficiencies always “create real fear” and get promoted as “deep budget cuts.”

A recent article—part of a statewide press campaign to criticize frugal conservative General Assembly members and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s fiscally responsible administration—cried out with a headline: “Mercy for universities?” (Published in the Wilmington StarNews print edition Tuesday, April 16, 2013; but not available online.)

The Associated Press story by Gary D. Robinson featured UNC President Tom Ross predictably worried, fearful and generally nervous about possible slight curtailments in his vast statewide empire of 17 campuses.

Pres. Ross frets that proposed tuition increases “could result in fewer out-of-state students.” Some may even go to “non-UNC” schools—no concern that these people might not have access to better education (of course they would); rather that his state system wouldn’t get “the entire $54 million” in the proposed McCrory budget. Clearly, this is about the money.

But Ross says it’s “about talent.” Oh? I thought that the UNC exists to provide quality education for state residents who have the potential and motivation to learn at that level? Do university administrators emphasize access primarily to society elite? (Ross calls out-of-state students “the best and brightest.”)

It seems that Mr. Ross believes that the State of North Carolina doesn’t have enough capable residents able to benefit from university learning, so he must seek “talent” from other states. That should be insulting to North Carolina citizens.

Ross’ big worry about budget “cuts” (apparently addressed to the governor and our legislators): “they do send a message beyond the borders about the way you value higher education in your state,” he says.

Spoken like a lobbyist. But is it wise for a state bureaucrat to suggest that the governor and state legislators don’t value education? And Ross’ view on tuition seems twisted.

Actually, increasing state university tuition signals a higher value on education. It must be clear even to state university administrators that the cost of everything reflects its value—education isn’t exempt from this economic principle. Doesn’t low-cost tuition indicate that education is less valued than when it is high?

Further, our elected official’s attempts to rein in excessive, unaccountable spending have been modest. Statists within and outside North Carolina persist in slandering our leaders and misleading citizens about proposed legislation and the state budget. Any reasonably knowledgeable adult (outside the lobbying political class) understands that nearly every government program budget could be reduced without curtailing essential services (and that nonessential projects and regulations should be eliminated).

Administrative heads with a $9 billion dollar budget certainly can find some savings from wasteful, inefficient and low-priority spending without negatively affecting quality education.

Of course, the university budget has little to do with the value or quality of education—Mr. Ross confirms that it’s about the self-interest of politics and power.

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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