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At UNC, re-examining the value of knowledge

Committee looking to improve link between college, careers

College, at its best, helps students point themselves toward the rest of their lives. Some do it with a purposeful degree path that steers them into a chosen career. Some build a foundation of critical thinking and breadth that the liberal arts can provide.

Is one path better than the other? That depends, of course, on the student. But with U.S. college graduates becoming increasingly sour about the diplomas they earn, a UNC panel of education, business and government leaders is taking a look at whether college and career should be linked more intentionally, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported this week.

It’s a discussion that happens periodically in higher education – often during poor economic stretches in which graduates struggle to find jobs and begin careers. The most recent recession, however, has come at a time of soaring college costs, and universities are finding themselves responding to students (and their parents) who wonder exactly what they’re getting for the thousands of dollars they’re accumulating in debt each year.

A 2012 Rutgers University study reported that slightly more than four in 10 recent college graduates said their current job required a four-year degree. A 2011 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education seemed to agree, concluding that four years of college might no longer offer the best preparation for a job and career.

Still, business leaders complain that they can’t find qualified applicants to fill the jobs they have available, and other studies show an increasing number of jobs will require some education beyond high school. All of which suggests that universities and colleges have an important role to fill. They just don’t seem to be doing a good enough job.

To that end, the UNC Advisory Committee on Strategic Directions is conducting regional meetings with business leaders about the university’s role in the state’s economic future. Committee members think students could be steered toward areas of future job growth, and they’re calling on UNC campuses to provide data on jobs and earnings of graduates by major.

Already, North Carolina’s community colleges have placed an emphasis in recent years on training and matching students to growing vocations, with Central Piedmont Community College in particular offering innovative partnerships with industry leaders. The state’s high schools might adopt a similar philosophy, if Gov.-elect Pat McCrory has his way. McCrory has proposed creating two pathways for high school students – a diploma certifying that students have the skills needed for college, and a diploma certifying readiness for a job or community college.

McCrory also is calling for expanded collaboration between higher education and business that could build on the work of the UNC committee.

This jobs/education emphasis, however, is troublesome to at least some educators, who warn of the danger of marginalizing liberal arts. It’s true that a liberal arts education prepares students for life, not just jobs, but it also gives graduates the broad perspective and communications skills that companies often find in their best employees. Universities should look for opportunities to integrate the best of career and liberal arts paths.

The UNC system has long strived to equip state students with an affordable, high-quality education. We welcome the committee’s deeper look at that learning experience, because quality involves preparation as well as knowledge, and affordability isn’t just a number on a tuition bill. It’s the value a degree provides.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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