The Public Education Empire

The word “education” brings to mind great expectations, but increasingly poorly delivered in formal public institutions (ten different words in my dictionary refer to the “act or process of educating or being educated). The word “educated” means “having an education, esp. one above the average.” Few of us with experience in various public schools, colleges and universities would deny the value of being educated. Once it meant something recognizable about the character and wisdom of an individual.

But in recent decades our educational institutions have been perverted with quests for student bodies; government subsidies; irrelevant programs and useless curricula; and political agenda. Highly motivated and disciplined students (above average) can get a good education, but most of the student body seeks a “hanging out” experience mostly at the expense of others—enabled by promoters and administrators of “higher education.”

Peering behind the ivy-covered walls without rose-colored glasses one can observe spending and debt with no accountability for results that should be questioned. Students, parents and taxpayers have less and less to show for their contributions to the education empire. Where’s the value? Yet, advocates continue the delusion that more funding gives us better education.

Recently, an article published in the Wilmington StarNews illustrated pomposity associated with the University of North Carolina by a former member of the Board of Governors. Brad Wilson made a bold—and questionable—statement: “I’ve concluded”, he wrote, “that no other institution comes close to the university system in shaping the state.” (link)

I conclude that “shaping the state” is a tall task, not likely accomplished by a government institution driven by politics and favored interest groups. Does the university overshadow family, church, business and historical institutions that shaped North Carolina? I think not. Further, Mr. Wilson claims, “It has made North Carolina the best state in America to live, work, raise a family and retire.” Speaking as a retiree, I moved here for the climate and lower taxes, although I’ve taken advantage of some courses at UNC-Wilmington that improved my personal education. Most retirees I know go there to attend musical programs.

Another myth supported by Mr. Wilson: “Our public university fuel North Carolina’s economy.” Please. Public projects remove “fuel” from the economy—money taken from investors and job creators. Wilson has a short list of large companies that have located in the State. He claims that the university system is the “single best instrument we can deploy in the job wars.” Actually, bribes by government officials have been the “best instrument” to attract large companies to North Carolina because our taxes are so burdensome.

Wilson goes into an epiphany with an emotional review of some of his university experiences—irrelevant to the value of higher education to the State. “I drank from the creative waters of the UNC School of the Arts.” Excuse me, but activities that “touch the soul”—dancing, music and film—may be fun and self-fulfilling, but they contribute little to our economic growth. Wilson “marveled at the magnetism” of the Bell Tower and the Old Well at N. C. State—interesting and historic icons, but they have lost symbolism of “excellence and competition” they may have had at the university. Wilson continued with his religious trance recalling Appalachian State, his alma mater; and then seems to take credit for UNC enrollment increases and spending $3.1 billion from the 2000 Higher Education Bond.

Mr. Wilson assumes that, if asked, North Carolina state citizens would rather spend more on the UNC than be taxed less. To verify that we would want to know if the billions already spent on the system have been worth the cost. But we can’t know that because the university has no accountability or transparency for that information–it’s become a money-pit based on unjustified expectations.

And important to the future of the UNC, Wilson includes “affordable tuition”; “graduation and retention” rates; student debt; modernizing the university; and a “burgeoning Hispanic population.” Apparently, during his 16 year stewardship (four years as chairman of the Board) Wilson had done little to “resolve” these issues.

But he does “pray that the governor and the legislature will make changes to strengthen the university.”

We should all pray that the UNC Board of Governors will better serve the citizens of North Carolina by crafting policy reforms that will eliminate expenses on nonacademic programs, increase transparency of the system and give us an accounting of costs to benefits from our public education empire.

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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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