Editorial: It’s time for NC to reinvest in higher education, not impose deeper cuts

Budget writers hoping to give K-12 teachers and state workers a raise this year are eying the UNC system’s budget as the source for covering those raises.  But the Charlotte Observer writes in an editorial this week that would be a huge mistake:

unc-campusIt’s bad enough that North Carolina is near the cellar among states for paying public school teachers. But if N.C. lawmakers approve the $49 million cut to higher education Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed for 2014-2015, the state could sink to the bottom in terms of funding to our university system, too.

Already, the Tar Heel state is among an ignominious group of eight states where politicians last year slashed funding to higher education while all the other states boosted spending on their public colleges and universities. Neighboring South Carolina was among those increasing higher ed funding – as did most other Southern states, including Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee.

Worse, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said this month, North Carolina was among a handful of states last year that cut higher education the most. It also is one of four states to cut per-student funding by more than 20 percent since the recession hit in 2008.

In a statement, UNC system President Tom Ross outlined the implications of McCrory’s plan:

“In the context of a growing economy where other states are re-investing in their public universities, this is an issue of competitiveness. To improve North Carolina’s economic position, attract new industry, and create needed new jobs, North Carolina must continue to maintain its strong public university system.”

And Ross noted another pernicious impact of the cuts. “We have been forced to raise tuition,” he said. “While we will continue to search for additional efficiencies and savings, we cannot continue to shift the costs of higher education from the state to students and their families.”

That shift is occurring nationwide. But once again, North Carolina finds itself in a leading position where it is preferable to be trailing. It is 11th among the 50 states in the increase in tuition at public universities since 2008. Tuition rose nearly 35 percent from 2008 to fiscal year 2014, according to the Center. That’s nearly double the 18.4 percent tuition increase in South Carolina.

In addition to sharp tuition increases, the higher education cuts have hurt in other ways. In 2011, the UNC system had to cut $80 million, or 3.4 percent, of its overall budget. Five hundred classes were eliminated and 3,000 jobs were cut. Since 2008 at UNC Chapel Hill, budget reductions have meant eliminating 493 positions, cutting 16,000 course seats and increasing class sizes.

Critics have dubbed McCrory’s proposal the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul budget. That’s because the higher education cuts would help pay for much-deserved raises for the state’s public school teachers. Teachers have gone without a pay boost – except for a small one – since 2008. The stagnant pay has put North Carolina 46th in teacher pay nationally.

Lawmakers must pay teachers more. But they should find the money to do so from somewhere else. These higher education cuts are hurting the university system’s ability to educate the skilled and diverse workforce North Carolina needs to grow and thrive.

Other states have wisely changed course and are re-investing in higher education. North Carolina, to be competitive, needs to do likewise.

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