CHARLOTTE—Back in the day parents and guidance counselors used to tell their children the key to success was a good college education, advice which children took to heart and worked diligently to achieve the goal of finding a good job that paid well. But the rise of college tuition has caused some to question that age old wisdom and consider whether it is worth the time, money, and sanity to even spend four to six years in school. The same is being asked by the entities that fund these colleges and universities (mainly public)—the state. According to the Pope Center of Raleigh, one of the big questions that arises is “does investing the taxpayers’ money in institutions of higher learning lead to major economic payoffs?” While state legislators find themselves answering in the affirmative, others find a less favorable view on the matter. Individuals such as Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago believe the government subsidizing higher education drive up the cost, creating what is seen as a “higher education bubble”. Those following this line of thinking have come up with ideas that knowledge and education are in themselves not deemed as “public goods” even though they are financed by the public through taxpayer dollars, as only those who qualify or can afford higher education can truly benefit from obtaining them. In any case, more and more people are bypassing the traditional college experience and opting for the more affordable community college route. Indeed, students coming out of high school opt to complete their General Education courses at a community college first before transferring to a university, thereby saving time and money. Others simply wish to learn a skill that has real application in the workforce today, such as electrical engineering or web design. At Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte a class will routinely run at the price of $69, or $1104 for 16 credit hours. At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, on the other hand, for the upcoming 2012-13 school year, will run at $2, 936.50 for undergraduate studies, and this is only for in-state students. Out of state students can expect to shell out four times the amount, and this is only the proposed tuition pending approval in July. At a private school such as Queens University the price tag is $27, 576 for an incoming undergraduate, regardless of whether the student is in-state or out of state. There is also the question of the value of a liberal arts education, and whether being a “well rounded person” versed in differential equations, photosynthesis, Shakespeare, the Romantics, and knowing the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire leads to concrete success. Is having a degree in History worth anything? The need for those with technological, medical, and scientific backgrounds becomes more emphatic, especially with the rise of demand for technical innovation and the jobs that were created in its wake. Companies in the energy sector such as Westinghouse, Jetion, Duke, and Seimens are recruiting students and individuals experienced in the fields of engineering and the sciences. While there is no shortage of work within those sectors, the amount of people adept in those fields are somewhat lacking. There needs to be a shift in academic priority, moving away from a liberal arts focus to a scientific, more hands-on approach. And these companies will continue to come into the area to invest in the region, but the demand must be met by a supply of the know-how. So, to those who ask the question “is it worth taxpayer money to invest in higher education?” the answer is yes, BUT (with a huge emphasis on the word “but”) if the education is targeted to meeting the needs of a growing industry or variety of growing industries. Otherwise, isn’t the money just being wasted?
For more info on higher education policy in NC check out http://www.popecenter.org
More on the growing energy sector in Charlotte at http://cltjoules.com/