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Friday Interview: Positive UNC System Reforms

    Publisher's note: This post was created by the Staff of the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.

Pope Center President Shaw outlines ideas for Board of Governors

    RALEIGH – College students are heading home for the holidays, but the University of North Carolina's Board of Governors continues its work. The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy believes the BOG has plenty of opportunities to improve North Carolina's 16-campus university system. Jane Shaw, president of the Pope Center, discussed UNC system issues with Donna Martinez for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

    Martinez: It's no secret that academia has a reputation for being insular – the so-called ivory tower. Do you think the UNC Board of Governors is willing to acknowledge there are things that they need to be working on?

    Shaw: Yes, I think they do. I think they have acknowledged that we're in a different situation now than we were maybe five or 10 years ago. There's much more concern about the high costs of college education and concern about academic quality. And now we have a pretty conservative, fiscally conservative, board. And I think they are going to do quite a bit under their chairman, John Fennebresque, a strong-minded individual.

    So I'm optimistic. But the problem is, among other things, that there are 32 people on this board. It's very difficult to get single action, a focus for action. I think that, really, Jenna Robinson, our director of outreach at the Pope Center, and I have tried to figure out what are some things that many of them could get together on and show that they do understand the problems and stand up a bit to the establishment.

    Martinez: It's also no secret that the UNC system is very powerful when it comes to lobbying at the General Assembly.

    Shaw: Right.

    Martinez: Just because we're talking here about things that you want them to focus on does not in any way mean that they don't have a fine reputation. But, Jane, do you believe that legislators think the Board of Governors has things to address?

    Shaw: I would say that the legislature has not fully grasped the problem, in fact, not as much as the Board of Governors. I know they've been distracted, I guess you'd say, or focused on a lot of other issues, especially K-12. And I don't think they've seen, partly because of that reputation that you describe, I don't think they've seen the problems as being terribly serious. But nationally this is becoming a problem, as we've discussed before – the high cost, the loans that students have to take, the poor graduation rates, and so forth – and I think gradually the legislature is going to take that more seriously, too.

    Martinez: Well, certainly in the piece that you co-wrote with your colleague Jenna Ashley Robinson – which by the way, can be found in the Raleigh News & Observer. It was published there, also at You lay out some very specific recommendations. Let's talk about some of those. First of all, you say enrollment. What do they need to address?

    Shaw: This is kind of a complex issue. It took me a while to realize that it was even that important. But about 80 percent of all the funding that comes from the state is already predetermined by the number of students, the enrollment of students. So even though there's often talk about cuts or possible cuts, the basics are there because of enrollment.

    And that puts an incentive in a chancellor's mind, I would think, to expand enrollment. But that's not necessarily the right thing. There are other issues that need to be addressed, and the Board of Governors has talked about this. They see it as a problem, but they haven't exactly acted on it. For example, graduation rates could be one performance measure that determines whether money comes to the university or not. And there are others, such as the success of students in the Collegiate Learning Assessment at the end of their four years.

    Martinez: What about the admissions standards? I mean, it's one thing to focus on enrollment, but what about the students that are actually entering the system? Is it a rigorous system or not?

    Shaw: No, it's not rigorous, although it's better than it used to be. Right now a student, to get into any college in the university system, the 16 campuses, has to have at least an 800 SAT score. I think that's the most important thing. There's a grade point average also. But 800, think about that, [on the] SAT. That's on the verbal and on the mathematics. In total, 800 is not very high.

    In fact, the College Board, which produces the SAT scores, says that in order to expect to be a successful student, you need to get 1030. That needs to be the combined score. So we've got kids who are coming in who may never, you know, never succeed in college. And this is, I think, a terrible mistake. Our recommendation is that we at least begin by raising it to 900.

    Martinez: So put yourself in the position of that student coming in with that lower score and being put in a position where they may or may not succeed, but at the end of the day, they still have the bill to pay.

    Shaw: Exactly.

    Martinez: What about tuition?

    Shaw: Tuition is another issue that we think ought to be dealt with by the board. And, in fact, they have started to. We're pleased about that. They didn't raise tuition at all this year. The reason that tuition is kind of a signal, I guess, it's a signal of lack of cost control, the fact that we have increased tuition, the university system I should say, by nearly 6 percent every year for a very long time.

    That is not good, in our opinion, because what they really need to do is control costs. And there are a lot of things that the board could do to control costs, and we list a few. One of them is consolidating some activities, for example, into the General Administration. Wouldn't want to go too far in that direction, but some could save money.

    There is federal money that comes in that really has already been provided for to cover facilities that have been provided for by the state government. So there's a lot of things that could be done for cost control. And we hope they'll begin on those.

    Martinez: If tuition continues to go up, wouldn't one expect, then, that the quality of the education was rising as well? I mean, frankly, it's that way in the grocery store. You would think, "If I'm paying more for, you know, my milk, that that milk has got to be better for me in some way." Is what's going on on the campuses really better education for that higher dollar?

    Shaw: It doesn't seem to be. We see a lot of problems with education. One of our greatest concerns is the general education that individuals, students, get. They kind of can choose what they want. There's no really rigorous, demanding requirement for certain courses. The academic quality is sometimes not very good.

    And, of course, we have many wonderful faculty. We have many wonderful classes. But one of the problems is that when students can choose their own, they aren't necessarily going to choose what's best for them.

    And the question about the cost: The cost seems to go up somewhat independently of the quality. It's a little bit like health care, partly because many students themselves are not paying the full cost. Well, in fact, in the university system, you never pay the full cost. It's hard to really rigorously make wise choices.

    Martinez: Now, Jane, we just have a few moments left with you. But you do also recommend that they "hire some help." What does that mean?

    Shaw: Yes, we do. The Board of Governors is meant to be the organization that manages and oversees the whole system, 16 campuses. As with many organizations, the administration has a very strong role. The Board of Governors, to act independently, needs its own source of information, and so that's why we recommend an executive director or executive secretary.

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