Correcting bad division
Why arguments to divide public good from the university don't add upJune 21, 2013By: Jess Boersma/Martin Posey
It seems that almost every day we read another news story about either the unbridled rise in the cost of higher education or the disconnect between what happens in the classroom and the need to place graduating students in jobs.
As North Carolina professors, employees, taxpayers and parents, we too are concerned about the cost of tuition and future job prospects. But we also may be able to offer a little-known perspective about the value of “real-world skills” and their impact far beyond graduation day.
One of the great challenges our society faces is finding a way to balance the mandate to educate even greater numbers of our citizens for the demands of a global economy with the need to do so in a fiscally responsible manner that doesn’t leave our students mired in debt.
In this regard, the UNC system as a whole, and UNCW in particular, have done an admirable job not only in keeping a world-class education accessible, but also in graduating students.
What do we mean by “accessible”? UNCW is recognized nationally for balancing cost and quality, for example by publications such as Forbes, The Princeton Review and Kiplinger’s.
A quick look inside the state shows that the annual cost of attendance at private institutions such as Wake Forest, Duke, Elon or Campbell can range from $40,000 to $56,000 while UNCW comes in at $16,000.
These esteemed private institutions serve an important need, to be sure, but it is also true that education is cheaper to the student when she or he attends a public institution such as UNCW. Rather than call this public assistance or a subsidy, we think this brings up a point that all too often gets lost in the rush to treat individuals only as economic units; the public institution is an investment in the student and in the public good.
Our own state constitution recognizes this, as well as our founding fathers, who were adamant about the need for a well-educated citizenry for both the economic prosperity of the country as well as its democratic health.
Accessible also means providing higher education opportunities to the largest pool of qualified talent possible.
Approximately 27 percent of UNCW’s new freshmen are first-generation college students, 16 percent of our undergraduates are adult learners. We enroll the second-highest number of transfer students in the UNC system, and we’re recognized as one of the most military-friendly schools in the country.
Of course, getting people in doesn’t mean much if they don’t go on to graduate.
Here too, UNCW excels with the second-highest four-year graduation rate in the UNC system, the third-highest six-year graduation rate and the highest rate in the entire system for transfer students.
The fact that UNCW is affordable and accessible because of a shared investment in our collective future is a good thing.
And let’s make no mistake about it; while investment costs in training and education currently elicit discomfort in some, the pains of failing to make these investments might provoke a full-on upheaval. As a recent Economist article points out, a lack of proper education and follow-up training not only hurts the individual, but the whole economy, since “a wage penalty of up to 20 percent, lasting for around 20 years, is common” for those who spend their initial, economically active years jobless.
Accessibility and high graduation rates must be coupled with a transformative learning experience.
For us, this means providing students with both general, transportable skills as well as concrete, applied and “hands-on” ones.
Because the best opportunities for economic growth are now found in a knowledge-based economy in which the rate of innovation and turnover can be dizzying, nobody knows with certainty what the next big thing will be.
As such we need to equip our students with skills that will allow them to adapt and benefit from the forces of creative destruction rather than fall victim to them. In recent years, UNCW has revamped its curriculum to include a general education program where disciplinary knowledge converges with competencies such as critical thinking, information literacy and global citizenship.
What Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel (Oracle and Cisco Systems respectively) call 21st-century skills in their book on transforming education, we call University Studies and Applied Learning.
And yes, “practical,” “technical,” “applied,” “real-world” skills that help place students into jobs are crucial. UNCW has been a leader for years in breaking down the division between the traditional idea of imparting knowledge in the classroom vs. the real-world application of that education and hands-on experience.
A number of our programs target applied skills with practical training and utilize innovative partnerships between businesses and faculty to provide real-world experiences for students in programs such as English, communications, nursing, computer science, chemistry, economics, marine biotechnology and many others.
Efforts such as the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which will be opening this summer, and the CREST campus will provide further opportunities to integrate education with practical experience. Moreover, these initiatives are not reserved for just most successful UNCW students; in reality, every single UNCW student is required to complete some form of applied learning or exploration beyond the classroom.
The culture of applying learning to the real world runs deep at UNCW. It’s critical that we look beyond the cost of a college education and instead appreciate the value of one.
Jess Boersma is the interim Quality Enhancement Program director at UNCW, as well as director of the Team for Interdisciplinary Global Research and assistant professor in Spanish at UNCW.
Martin Posey is the interim associate vice chancellor and dean of undergraduate studies at UNCW.