The future of the UNC System: Overview of Benefits

Determining the set of policies that will determine the future of the UNC system (the 16 colleges and universities and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics [NCSSM]; a baording high school offering 11th and 12th grade) is one of the most consequential actions the North Carolina General Assembly will undertake this session. Indeed, it is an ongoing effort, but few doubt that the reduction in per pupil expenditures since 2007-08 necessitated by the economic downturn means that we are now in a particularly consequential time for the future of our State’s system. I am going to write a series of posts on how I think we should think about the future of the UNC system.

Given finite resources, we need to carefully assess the cost and benefits of public expenditures on our University system (and anything else paid for with public money). Precisely estimating benefits is tricky, but at least we can make clear what the categories are. This post lays out what I think the broad categories of “what we get from the UNC system” are. Measurement of these can be hard, and the relative importance of them can be disputed, but the first step is getting the categories straight.

Direct Education

  • Teaching undergraduates. A basic task of the UNC system is providing undergraduate education. What is the goal of getting an undergraduate degree? A better informed citizenry is an assumption of a democracy, and producing educated citizens is a vital goal of college. There is often viewed to be a tension in the drive for more/better science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, which I support, and the re-invigoration of a vibrant liberal arts education, which I also support. We need both, and the liberal arts education should teach students to assess, interpret, decide and advocate. In the end, both forms of education (liberal arts and STEM, which are best integrated), are about teaching students to solve problems. A key goal of the UNC system is to produce better citizens who can solve problems, and while doing so provide the skills and credentials necessary for students to obtain a job or prepare for more education. The UNC system also has a high school in the form of NCSSM.
  • Credentialing professionals. The UNC system provides professional education in the form of Medical, Dental, Nursing, Law, Physical Therapy, Business schools.
  • Training researchers. The creation of knowledge is the essence of a research university, and the education of Ph.D. students is a vital part of this for the UNC campuses that have at least 1 Ph.D. program.


  • Universities in the UNC system are typically involved in the creation of knowledge and understanding, which is a practical definition of research. UNC Asheville is the only undergraduate-only teaching college in the UNC system, and NCSSM is a high school. The other institutions are necessarily engaged in research to varying degrees, with UNC Chapel Hill and North Carolina State being world class research universities. I know that NCSSM is also involved in research and suspect that UNC Asheville is as well, simply because that is the way professors and teachers tend to think about the world (increasing knowledge).


  • The basic job description of a professor in a research university is Research, Teaching and Service. Service can mean within the University or to a given discipline, but in a public University system typically encompasses a responsibility of faculty to interpret, explain, advance and apply research findings and knowledge to the general problems of society. You could think of this as translating research into practical benefits for the State, and also informing future research by understanding the needs of the State. In this way, the University of North Carolina system has the responsibility to make North Carolina a better place, not only for the students that are taught, but for all of the people of the State.

Health Care

  • Both UNC Chapel Hill and East Carolina University have direct patient care responsibilities that benefit North Carolina. This could be called service, I suppose, but is a big enough enterprise to warrant its own category, I think.


  • I submit that the University of North Carolina system has provided large intangible benefits to the State of North Carolina. Such benefits are hard to quantify, and may be disputed. The question here is how important is our University system in defining the essence of our State.

These are the broad categories of benefit that are provided by our University system. Of course there are costs, or money that is spent on our University system that cannot be spent elsewhere. The question going forward is how much to spend, how and to what effect? I have not included “jobs” as a benefit of our University system because in a cost:benefit analysis framework, jobs are typically thought of as transfers, in large part because we could do something else with the money we spend on Universities. The point here is that the goal of Universities is not to give people jobs, but to undertake teaching, research and service. Above and beyond the question of how much we will spend on our University system are the questions of how will this spending be employed.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

One Response to The future of the UNC System: Overview of Benefits

  1. Pingback: The Future of the UNC System: should a campus be closed? | freeforall

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