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Budget Preview: Post-Secondary Education & Training Educated Workers, Engaged Citizens

North Carolina’s post-secondary education institutions—both public universities and community colleges—are the envy of other states.  The commitment to building these institutions in North Carolina was earlier than in most states. Throughout our history, their presence in our communities have supported big advances in the educational attainment of our population and strengthened our ability to attract and retain business.

Over the course of the Great Recession, North Carolina’s commitment to these institutions has begun to falter as demonstrated by reduced funding [1] since the start of the Great Recession (FY2007-08) at the state level: 11 percent lower for public universities and 4.3 percent lower for community colleges.

State funding declines [2] have impacted campuses and communities.  Tuition at UNC system schools [3] has increased by nearly $1,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars over the decade, while community college tuition increased by $650.  These increases can prove prohibitive for students from low-income families where post-secondary costs in North Carolina already represent more than one-third of the household budget.  Student’s classroom experience has also suffered due to larger class size, fewer class offerings and less exposure to the equipment that can make job training for the 21st century relevant.

It is clear that the debate over post-secondary education will be a significant one this session and beyond.  As North Carolina figures out how to meet the demand for educated workers and engaged citizens, a focus on access, affordability and completion will be critical. The strategic direction committee for the UNC system has outlined a laudable goal [4] of increasing student completion while at the same time presenting controversial strategies to get there including increasing on-line course offerings. The Governor’s comments denigrating a liberal arts education only made matters worse. What the strategic plan and its emphasis on training North Carolinians for the workforce means for community colleges and the relationship between these institutions is unclear.

What is clear is that both institutions prepare and train North Carolinians for participation in the economy and society, and as such, our collective investment to maintain their innovation is essential. As policymakers put together the biennial budget, here are a few things to look for:

This year’s budget process represents a crossroads of sorts.  Whether policymakers choose to invest in the education and skills training of North Carolinians for the jobs and challenges of the future can establish our trajectory to once again lead among the states.