As North Carolina students embark upon a new school year, lots of media coverage has focused on waning state-level support for public schools. This waning support extends beyond public schools to both ends of the education pipeline – early childhood and higher education. Whereas North Carolina should be boosting investments in its entire education pipeline in order to become a more competitive and attractive state, we have taken a different path.
Early childhood programs, like NC Pre-K and the Child Care Subsidy Program, are crucial to promoting the healthy development of North Carolina children. Although child poverty has worsened since the Great Recession, state investments in early childhood programs remain woefully inadequate while waiting lists persist. Today, the NC Pre-K program serves approximately 8,000 fewer four-year olds compared to 2009 peak levels during the recession (see chart below).
Funding cuts are driving the drop in the number of children participating in the NC Pre-K program. Since 2009, lawmakers have cut total funding for the program by $45.2 million, adjusted for inflation (see chart below) – approximately one-quarter of the program’s budget. The largest single-year funding cut to the program, a $29 million cut when adjusted for inflation, occurred for fiscal year 2012. The funding increase to the program for fiscal year 2014 hardly bridged the gap and fell short of restoring state investment to the program’s peak level. Furthermore, in recent years, lawmakers have replaced state dollars with federal dollars to fund early childhood programs.
State support for public universities remains below 2008 pre-recession levels. For FY 2015, total state funding for the UNC System – with total enrollment of more than 200,000 students – was more than $350 million less than the funding level for FY 2008 when adjusted for inflation. During this period, total enrollment in the state’s public universities increased by more than 14,000 students. As a result, state funding per student is down by around 18 percent since 2008 (see chart below). Consequently, this eroding state support has had an impact on the level of education and support services provided to students.
The decline in state support for higher education has been accompanied by a steady increase in the cost to attendance at North Carolina’s public universities. Since 2008, average tuition and mandatory fees at public universities increased by 43 percent (see chart below), which serves as a formidable barrier for students and families who are unable to afford the rising cost of college. Consequently, the increasing cost of college leads to students incurring higher levels of debt, which can adversely impact the economy.
State support for North Carolina’s community colleges remains well below 2008 pre-recession levels (see chart below). After a surge in enrollment in response to the Great Recession, enrollment at community colleges is down in recent years. Still, community colleges serve more students today than they did before the recession.
As with the state’s public universities, tuition at community colleges has increased significantly in recent years. Since fiscal year 2009, tuition at the state’s community colleges has increased significantly, 72 percent (see chart below), with state lawmakers considering a further increase in tuition for the 2015-16 academic year.
Evidence shows that states with higher levels of educational attainment in their workforce have greater levels of productivity. Accordingly, rather than reducing support, North Carolina should be boosting investment in its entire education pipeline to ensure that students are provided enriching and quality education experiences from birth through their post-secondary years. Doing so helps build a competitive workforce and promotes opportunity across the state, regardless of where children live.
(Note: The original blog post noted a total funding cut to the NC Pre-K program of $48.2 million since 2009. The actual funding cut since 2009 is $45.2 million. The blog post and accompanying chart have been updated to reflect this correction.)