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UNC system debates the purpose of degrees: Jobs or intellect?

UNC debates mix of broad learning, employed grads

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  • Student loans hit hard for those 60 and older
  • What employers want

    A 2009 survey of more than 300 companies and organizations indicates that employers want their workers to use a broader range of skills and have higher levels of learning to meet the demands of an increasingly complex workplace.

    A majority of employers said colleges should place more emphasis on:

    • Effective oral/written communication – 89 percent.

    • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning – 81 percent.

    • Ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings – 79 percent.

    • Ability to analyze and solve complex problems – 75 percent.

    • Ability to connect choices and actions to ethical decisions – 75 percent.

    • Teamwork skills and ability to collaborate in diverse groups – 71 percent.

    • Ability to innovate and be creative – 70 percent.

    • Knowledge of developments in science and technology – 70 percent.

    Source: “Raising the Bar,” survey by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities


  • More information

    Better graduation rates = more degrees

    Pushing graduation rates higher will be a key to achieving efficiency at a time when more people need degrees. The longer a student sticks around, the more it costs taxpayers.

    In the UNC system, 59.1 percent of students graduate within six years. The average state subsidy for a UNC system student in 2012 was $11,292.



Should college be a meandering journey of intellectual exploration or a straight line to a good job? What’s more worthwhile for today’s undergraduate – Aristotle or aerospace engineering? Biotech or British lit?

There’s no right answer, but University of North Carolina system leaders are thinking that college and career should be linked more closely for the sake of students and the state’s economy. During the past few months, a panel of corporate, higher education and government leaders has pored over projections about North Carolina’s future workforce as it crafts a five-year strategy for the state’s public universities.

The UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions may set a goal of boosting the percentage of college-degree earners among North Carolina adults from 28 percent to 31 or 32 percent by 2018. It’s also looking at quality and efficiency – and whether a UNC education is adequately preparing students for 21st-century jobs.

The debate comes at a time when American higher education faces heightened pressure. The public is demanding more accountability as tuition rises and college completion lags. Student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in the United States. Newly minted, underemployed college grads are beginning to wonder whether their diploma really is a ticket to prosperity.

Study: 40% needed degree for job

A 2012 study from Rutgers University reported that slightly more than half of recent college graduates had full-time jobs – and that only four in 10 said their current job required a four-year degree. That same survey found that the majority of graduates were happy with their college education but if they had it to do over, they would have picked a different major or tried career internships.

Against this backdrop, the committee’s practical considerations are essential, members of the panel say.

“I don’t think we can afford to not only spend the money but charge the money to students excessively and they can’t get a job,” said Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive who leads a small group gathering data for the UNC system committee. “Nobody’s going to be happy.”

But all the job talk is making some people uneasy.

At a recent community forum at UNC Chapel Hill, María DeGuzmán, professor of English and comparative literature, warned that the liberal arts could become subservient to the obsession with jobs.

She also criticized the makeup of the UNC strategy group, which is composed largely of corporate, government and university leaders, but only one faculty member and one student.

“Reducing university education to, quote, getting a job,” she said, “is to capitulate to the worst sort of – as William Faulkner would have said – jobism.”

Kevin Kimball, a UNC Chapel Hill senior from Beaufort and the only student on the UNC committee, said there has to be a balance. “Everyone wants a job when they get out of college,” Kimball said. “At the same time, I don’t think students believe the sole object of a university education is employment.”

‘We can do both’

Peter Hans of Raleigh, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, has said the panel recognizes that higher education is about more than the pursuit of job credentials.

“Education is crucial to our culture and our democracy, not just our economy,” he said. “But it isn’t an either/or choice. We can and should do both.”

To that end, Hans has called for UNC campuses to disseminate data on the jobs and earnings of graduates by major.

“We could arm students with the information they need to prepare themselves for their futures, whatever choices they make – computer science, political science, health care or the performing arts,” he said.

Brett Carter, head of Duke Energy’s operations in North Carolina, suggested that students could be steered to areas of future job growth.

“I think we should be trying to funnel them toward where the opportunities are going to be,” he said. “It’s the Wayne Gretzky of trying to skate to where the puck’s going to be as opposed to where it is.”

A study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2018, 59 percent of jobs in North Carolina would require some education beyond high school.

A few expected areas of expansion are health care, biotechnology, energy and “big data,” the management and manipulation of gigantic databases. But some careers are a question mark because they will grow out of new industry not yet envisioned.

“Technology is changing so much faster than we can teach or people can change their skills,” said Daniel Gitterman, professor of public policy at UNC Chapel Hill. “We’ve just got a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

That uncertainty is OK, said Randy Woodson, N.C. State University chancellor.

Woodson uses the example of Germany to paint a contrast to American higher education. There, students are put into a career pipeline early based on test scores. They are trained very well in apprenticeships, but students have very little flexibility.

“In this country, because of the way the system works, you’re able to continually reinvent yourself,” he said.

In the next few weeks, the UNC system will conduct regional meetings across North Carolina to get feedback from employers about priorities for future economic growth and what role the university might play in those efforts.

In demand: Soft skills

UNC leaders are likely to hear a repeat of what North Carolina employers said in a 2012 survey, in which they described a gap in “soft skills” such as communication, critical thinking and problem solving.

National surveys have shown a clamor for employees who have good speaking and writing skills and analytical reasoning ability. Those are skills best developed in the liberal-arts disciplines rather than pre-professional courses.

Liz Whitfield, a UNC Chapel Hill student from Cary, has crafted an unusual course of study with a double major in Peace, War and Defense and Hispanic Linguistics. She’s a strong believer in liberal arts.

“It’s supposed to broaden your intellectual horizons and just let you experience a lot of different things,” she said. “… It helps you learn how to think, learn how to evaluate critically, helps your writing skills. It’s not as if it’s not useful for later employment, because I think it really is, it’s just not designed to be directly applicable to like a certain job or career.”

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