Tom Campbell: North Carolina should look beyond college

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Tom Campbell



Saturday, December 15, 2018

While many are fretting over the just-right Christmas present, tackling last-minute holiday details or preparing for years-end, many of North Carolina’s high school seniors have the added stress of preparing applications for college.

Unless you parent a high school student it is hard to understand the intense pressure and competition in getting accepted into schools of their choosing. It’s not uncommon for students to apply to as many as 15 institutions, a time consuming and expensive process. Many believe their future success depends on this one decision.

Why so much pressure? Beginning in elementary grades we directly or indirectly impress on students that future happiness and financial well-being depends on a college degree. Our college-oriented school curriculum is predicated on the belief that everyone can and should get a college degree. This mantra has become accepted truth.

The My Future NC Commission engaged a Gallop organization study and 94 percent of those surveyed affirmed it was important to complete a degree or certification program after high school, adding the additional education helps to get a good job and a good job helps them have a high quality of life.

There is a huge disconnect between our conditioning, however, and reality. Only 34 percent of North Carolina adults have an associate or higher degree, according to the Hunt Institute.

That disconnect gets even worse. North Carolina invests almost $10,000 per year for each student in grades K-12. After graduation, we continue to contribute significant state moneys for in-state students at our public universities and community colleges and provide tuition tax credits for private schools. Sadly, we have no pathway, no real plan to invest in those not travelling the higher education road.

Perhaps we don’t want to admit the obvious truth that some can’t or don’t want college. Maybe we just aren’t sure how to develop a sophisticated alternative track or aren’t willing commit the funding necessary to do so. Whatever the reasons, however, the result is discrimination bordering on elitism, essentially picking winners and losers.

Don’t get us wrong. We know the benefits of a higher education degree and encourage every student to consider that path, but we also acknowledge that two-thirds won’t get that degree. Many European countries have a plan, starting as early as the seventh grade, where students choose between a college curriculum or a vocational track. North Carolina has paid lip service to the concept, but we are too timid to acknowledge that college isn’t for everyone and haven’t put our determination, best efforts or real money behind the concept.

Imagine a program where the first two years of high school are the traditional curriculum. Beginning year three, time is split between a choice of structured vocational programs (employing our community colleges) with subsidized internships or work programs, a path that could require two or more years, depending on the vocational path chosen.

Think of the great advantages. Many more would be better trained and earn higher incomes, benefitting our economy as well as public tax coffers. Employers, already complaining about finding workers with needed skills, would fill vacant job openings. If we are willing to pay companies thousands of dollars to bring new jobs to our state, why not invest in people on the front end? Businesses want to come where there’s a ready work force.

That’s a New Year’s resolution worth making … and keeping!

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and creator and host of NC SPIN, a statewide panel discussion that airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 12:30 p.m. Sunday on UNC-TV and 10 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday on the North Carolina Channel.Contact him at www.ncspin.com.