Commentary

Time for a serious talk about cutting UNC system tuition

UNCsystemIt was a positive step yesterday when Senator Tom Apodaca said he would remove three HBCU’s from his half-baked plan to slash tuition at five UNC system schools.

As this morning’s editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer puts it:

“They [HBCU supporters] had rightly argued that the money lost from dramatic tuition cuts might do serious damage, even though Apodaca promised that the legislature would restore the money through appropriations.

It’s good Apodaca responded; he should have removed Pembroke and Western from the plan as well.”

Here’s the deal, though: cutting tuition throughout the UNC and community college systems is actually a fine idea. As presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has argued forcefully in recent months, public colleges and universities ought to be available to all Americans tuition-free. Here in North Carolina, such a policy would actually allow us to get back to complying with our state constitution’s mandate that higher education be “as free as practicable.”

As the N&O rightfully points out, however, this is not the kind of policy change that one simply dashes off on the back of an envelope over lunch. If we’re going to seriously undertake such a momentous shift (and we most assuredly should) it needs to be done with great care and attention to detail.

For instance, there needs to be a means of permanently guaranteeing full replacement revenue for the money the schools would lose. There also needs to be serious conversation given to targeting the lower tuition costs based on family income — at least until we are genuinely serious and able to slash it for every student.

The bottom line: Though Senator Apodaca’s motives in the current debate are clearly subject to question, he has spurred a discussion that North Carolina needs to have. So let’s have it. As the N&O editorial concludes:

“Rather than come up with some kind of tuition gambit that sounded like it was hatched over lunch, GOP leaders would do better to convene a summit of sorts on the future missions of HBCUs and the commitment to them.

Even better would be for University of North Carolina system President Margaret Spellings to call for and lead that study. The last thing she needs is more interference from the General Assembly. For there is a legitimate discussion to be held on the overall expense of a college education not just at HBCUs or schools such as Pembroke and Western but on all campuses. The cost of an education at North Carolina’s public institutions has escalated over the past decade in particular, and though the universities defend increased charges to students as necessary to maintain quality, it’s time to examine the issue in detail.

If this kind of dialogue happened, then something productive might actually come out of an ill-conceived idea that fortunately was stopped before it became law.”

 

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