The UNC system's Board of Governors is preparing to adopt a five-year strategy to target money to research fields that could stimulate North Carolina's economy. The plan will stress "performance funding" that provides incentives to campuses to improve productivity and graduation rates.
'Not as simple as it looks'
Many on the UNC faculty saw McCrory's remarks as a short-sighted view of the purpose of higher education.
"The reality is that nobody has a clear sense of what good jobs will require 10, 20 or 30 years down the road," sociology professor Andrew Perrin told The (Raleigh) News & Observer. "A strong, diverse and challenging liberal arts education like the one we provide at Chapel Hill is the best possible resource for dealing with the reality of uncertain futures and the changing economy, society and world."
CPCC's Zeiss said he agrees with McCrory that "higher education ought to lead to jobs. ... That's why we go to school." But measuring a school's performance is "not as simple as it looks." For instance, he said, a CPCC student might take longer to get his or her degree if they're a parent with children and can't be in school full time. That student might not show up in job measurements for years.
McCrory is not the first Republican governor to challenge public universities on how well they place graduates in jobs. Govs. Rick Scott of Florida and Rick Perry of Texas have argued for focusing public spending on majors that promise strong job prospects.
Scott has urged public universities to collect data on employment and salaries for various majors to share with prospective students. In 2011, he sparked controversy when he argued for shifting money from liberal arts and social sciences to math, science, technology and engineering.
"How many more jobs you think there (are) for anthropology in this state?" Scott told a group of business leaders. "You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people that can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't."
Some studies do show that some employers, even in an ailing economy, still value that liberal arts education that begets a broader set of skills.
A 2010 study by the Hart Research Associates, conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, found that during the economic downturn, most employers said their hiring would place a greater emphasis on four-year college graduates. Their most-desired qualities for graduates were "effective oral/written communication" and "critical thinking/analytical reasoning," according to the study.
And statistics suggest that degree holders fare better at landing jobs in North Carolina. The state's overall unemployment rate was 9.5 percent in December. That compares to 5.1 percent for those with a bachelor's degree and higher in 2011, according to recent statistics available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For those with some college or associate degree, the unemployment rate was 7.5 percent in the state.
Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff, executive director of N.C. State University's Industrial Extension Service, said a four-year university education is crucial for helping students develop work skills as well as the ability to adapt to change.
But just as critical, she says, is real work experience -- internships, temporary jobs in the field.
"This emerging trend of getting students out in the real world, a learn-and-do format ... employers are demanding it," said Ratcliff, whose department provides educational and technical assistance for small- and medium-sized manufacturers. "The community colleges and universities-- it's not one or the other. We really have to work together as a system."
A welder, after all, needs to know more than just how to weld, she said. "They need people who know how to weld and can transition those welding skills to whatever can come along...the capability to transition to whatever the new thing is." Observer Staff Writers Ann Doss Helms and Celeste Smith and the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.
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