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Guest Editorial: Higher education in North Carolina not ready for future

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Margaret Spellings is right: Public education is too expensive. Paying for it is a tough burden for all but the wealthiest families. For people of average means, tuition, fees and other costs are a crushing burden, often leaving both student and parents with debt that will last for decades. College loan debt in the U.S. is second only to mortgage debt.

Spellings, who is president of the University of North Carolina, this week revisited what she found while she was U.S. education secretary for President George W. Bush. She formed a commission that issued a report in 2006 calling for greater accessibility, affordability, innovation and accountability in higher education. At a symposium in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, she delivered a keynote speech in which she said most of those goals are still unmet. “A decade on from the commission report,” she said, “we still know very little about whether our institutions of higher learning are succeeding at their core mission. We don’t know whether they are effectively teaching critical reasoning, fundamental mastery of science and mathematics, or advanced reading, writing and communications skills.”

And, she said, higher education is less affordable than ever. American student loan debt is more than $1 trillion. “We’ve sold college as the golden ticket to middle-class opportunity, then priced average families out of the market.”

That’s not only true at private colleges. Public universities are getting too expensive for many families as well — especially the ones trying desperately to lift their children out of generations of poverty. As Article IX of the North Carolina Constitution lays it out, “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” A student at one of the UNC flagships today who gets bachelor’s and graduate degrees might leave campus with a six-figure tuition debt. Five figures are likely just for an undergraduate degree. That’s hardly “free of expense.” We aren’t about to suggest that the state can give away the quality education that’s available at UNC institutions, but we’ve got to address the fact that a college education — even at in-state rates — is increasingly out of reach for many families.

But that’s only one growing problem that the state needs to deal with. As we’ve seen in recent meetings of UNC’s Board of Governors, the board’s guidance is increasingly politicized. Recent appointees to the board seem determined to impose conservative ideological standards on the university system, rather than assuring that higher education in this state exposes students to the full spectrum of political thinking. Balance should be the board’s objective, not swinging the pendulum all the way to the right.

We’re also worried that our higher-education system — in North Carolina and across the country — isn’t ready for the technological challenges of the 21st century. As author Thomas Friedman suggests in his new book, “Thank You for Being Late,” rapid evolution of technology and the learning it requires means that most of us need to spend our entire careers in continuing-education programs. It’s no longer possible to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree and then spend 40 years at the same job. Many of our children will go out into the world to take jobs that haven’t been invented yet. And when they go to work, they’ll need almost continuous education to keep pace with the technology they use. Our university system needs to be ready for that new kind of student.

North Carolina can still boast of having one of the finest systems of public higher education in the country, but it needs a lot of adjusting to be affordable and effective in meeting our 21st century needs. Margaret Spellings just pointed out some good places to start.

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