Higher Ed, News

U.S. House Dems advance sweeping effort to lower higher education costs

WASHINGTON — A U.S. House committee passed legislation on Thursday that supporters hailed as a “down payment” on a long-sought liberal goal: free college education for all.

The sweeping measure from Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, aims to help more Americans of all backgrounds obtain high-quality college degrees by increasing affordability, accountability and accessibility in higher education.

It would fund states that waive tuition at community colleges and invest in their public colleges and universities, which proponents say would lower costs for students and families. It would also increase federal education grants, crack down on “predatory” for-profit colleges and strengthen supports for low-income students and students of color, among other things.

The bill — an update of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, which hasn’t been reauthorized in more than a decade — cleared the House Education and Labor Committee on party lines Thursday morning. The committee’s 28 Democrats all voted in its favor and the committee’s 22 Republicans all voted in opposition.

Rep. Alma Adams

North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams voted for the bill; Republican Reps. Virginia Foxx,  Mark Walker and Gregory Murphy voted against it.

Proponents called the legislation an important step toward universal access to an affordable college education, a goal articulated more than a half century ago when President Lyndon Johnson first signed the HEA into law in 1965.

At the time, Johnson said the law meant that “a high school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.”

But that promise remains out of reach for many Americans, said Scott. “We must fulfill the promise of making higher education affordable for all students,” he said at the opening of a committee markup of the bill on Tuesday.

Committee Democrats agreed, voicing strong support during the markup, which stretched over three days this week and involved debate over dozens of amendments on issues ranging from campus child care to student health care to equity in higher education.

The bill will “bring us closer to the vision of a higher education system that provides a ticket to America’s middle and upper class,” said Adams.

Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson said that it will “make a strong statement that everyone deserves access to a quality post-secondary education.”

Republicans, meanwhile, strongly objected to the measure, which carries an estimated price tag of $400 billion over 10 years.

Rep. Virginia Foxx

The “partisan” legislation “throws billions and billions of dollars at a failing system,” said Foxx, the committee’s highest-ranking Republican.

Pennsylvania Rep. Lloyd Smucker, the top Republican on the committee’s Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, echoed the sentiment, saying it “doubles down on failed policies that are hurting students and American taxpayers.”

Virginia’s Cline agreed. “We need to massively overhaul the system, get the federal government out of the way and create more workable options,” he said.

Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg, meanwhile, accused Democrats of trying to “dictate every choice a student can make along the path of their post-secondary education.”

Skyrocketing costs 

The value of a bachelor’s degree is coming under heightened scrutiny, but experts say it is still a good investment for most people, with a high average rate of return. Scott made that point during the markup, calling a high-quality college degree “the surest path to financial security and a rewarding career.”

Yet the cost of the path to a college diploma is climbing, leaving millions of Americans in debt.

Over the last decade, the average annual cost of tuition and fees rose by $930 (in 2018 dollars) at public two-year colleges, $2,670 at public four-year institutions and $7,390 at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities, according to a 2018 CollegeBoard report.

Higher sticker prices are due in part to state funding cuts to higher education over the last decade, according to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

Overall, and after adjusting for inflation, state funding for public colleges was $6.6 billion less in 2018 than it was in 2008, before the Great Recession, the report finds. These cuts deter enrollment among low-income students and students of color, undermining efforts to advance equity in higher education, according to the center.

Despite higher tuition costs, participation in the nation’s higher education system is on the rise. Over the last two decades, the percent of U.S. adults with an associate’s degree or higher has risen from 31 percent to 45 percent, according to the American Council on Education.

Scott’s bill — the College Affordability Act — now awaits action by the full House chamber, which is consumed by an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump and pressing legislative matters, including funding the government. It also faces an uncertain future in the GOP-controlled Senate, where lawmakers are working on higher education bills of their own.

At the outset of the markup, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson predicated that the bill wouldn’t see “the light of day” in the Senate.

Allison Stevens is a reporter for the States Newsroom Network of which NC Policy Watch is a member.

Higher Ed, News

Ousted elections board chair heading search for next UNC System President

The search for the next UNC system president has a new leader — and for North Carolina politicos, it’s a familiar name.

Kim Strach, former executive director of the NC Board of Elections, will head the search for the next UNC System President

Kim Strach, the former executive director of the N.C. State Board of Elections, was announced as director of the UNC System Presidential Search Committee late last week.

Strach was controversially ousted from her position with the board of elections in May in a 3-2 party line vote. The board’s two Republicans argued for keeping Strach, who had served the board of elections for 19 years and worked as its executive director since 2013.

The UNC System Presidential Search Committee, created by the GOP dominated UNC Board of Governors, has hired Strach for $15,000 a month — a bump from the just over $110,000 she made as executive director of the state board of elections.

“Kim is the perfect choice to serve as director, due to her outstanding record of professional service of nearly two decades at the N.C. State Board of Elections, her integrity and her exemplary professional reputation,” said committee co-chairs Randy Ramsey and Wendy Murphy in a joint statement on the hire.

Strach thanked the committee for the opportunity in a prepared statement.

“I am confident that this committee will discover the perfect candidate to lead the UNC System as President,” Strach said.

Dr. Bill Roper was chosen as Interim UNC System President since late last year, after Margaret Spellings resigned her position after prolonged tensions with the UNC board of governors.

The UNC system has since lost several chancellors amid political tensions and personality conflicts with the board, including UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carol Folt and East Carolina University’s Cecil Staton.

Earlier this year Barmak Nassirian, the director of Federal Relations and Policy Analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told Policy Watch the atmosphere created by the high profile exits and public battles may make it difficult to find high quality candidates for leadership positions across the system.

“There are seemingly irreconcilable differences between the folks charged with governing the operation and the campus communities and the poor souls charged with running the operation,” he said. “That makes it a very dangerous mission for anybody to step in. Who would want to leave a workable arrangement to attempt to play Solomon? How do you bridge that gap? It strains credulity to imagine who would want to step into this except for a partisan for one side.”

The UNC Board of Governors also named co-chairs and members to serve on both the Presidential Search Committee and the Presidential Assessment and Advisory Committee last week. They are:

Presidential Search Committee

  • Wendy Murphy (Co-Chair)
  • Randy Ramsey (Co-Chair)
  • Darrell Allison
  • Kellie Hunt Blue
  • Rob Bryan
  • Phil Byers
  • Carolyn Coward

Presidential Assessment and Advisory Committee

  • Anna Nelson (Co-Chair)
  • Temple Sloan (Co-Chair)
  • Pearl Burris-Floyd
  • Leo Daughtry
  • Tom Fetzer
  • Alex Mitchell
  • Mike Williford
Higher Ed

ECU asserts itself as a ‘welcoming, accepting campus’ after Trump rally, ‘Send her back!’ chants

A presidential visit to a college campus is often a high honor – a chance to showcase the university in the best light on a national stage.

But East Carolina University finds itself in an awkward spot after President Donald Trump’s rally in Greenville last week, in which his supporters chanted ‘Send her back!’ directed at Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who immigrated to the U.S. from Somalia.

In an open letter posted on ECU’s Facebook page, the University reiterates that it did not endorse the event and had no control over the content of the President’s speech.

ECU Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach and seven vice chancellors, who signed onto the letter, go on to write:

Interim Chancellor Dan Gerlach

East Carolina University attracts students, faculty and staff from all over the region, state, nation and world. For decades, people with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences have been proud to call themselves Pirates. A diverse campus allows us to pursue excellence in many ways and fields, to communicate effectively with a broad variety of audiences, and – according to our alumni – to be well prepared for the world after graduation.

ECU is indeed a welcoming and accepting campus that provides students, faculty and staff the opportunity and space to share their thoughts and views. We strive to create an environment where individuals feel wanted, welcomed, appreciated and valued, understanding that there will be times we disagree. That challenge, and sometimes conflict, builds resiliency and sharpens the intellect. That’s the beauty of living, learning and working at a great institution of higher education.

We encourage and welcome civil discourse on our campus. The U.S. Constitution allows the intellectual and individual freedom of expression that enables us to live our mission. These freedoms do not protect the right to hear and listen to only what is convenient and agreeable but do protect the right to be able to respond and express one’s own views. We will facilitate such conversations on the campus in the fall.

Read the full letter from East Carolina University leaders here.

President Trump has since said he ‘felt a little bit badly about it’ and that he began ‘speaking quickly’ to try to quiet the crowd:

 

Commentary, Education, Higher Ed, Legislature

Editorial: Despite controversy, UNC system has high marks among alumni

UNC Board of Governors Chair Harry Smith

Despite a reactionary Board of Governors that’s struggled mightily in its erratic handling of Silent Sam, picked bizarre fights with its administrators, frightened its own leaders out the door, and, most recently, traipsed heedlessly over open meetings laws, a recent Gallup survey found UNC alumni overwhelmingly believe their education in the 16-campus system has been a boon.

The Winston-Salem Journal‘s editorial board applauded the poll’s results this weekend, but warned that the omnipresent controversy swirling about the system’s controlling board may soon be a hindrance.

The paper’s right. UNC leaders need a swift reappraisal of their priorities, coincidentally the priorities of an extraordinarily right-wing state legislature. North Carolina is, all things considered, a purple state, but its brain-trust on the BOG and in the legislature governs deep in the red.

Read on for the paper’s editorial:

Alumni of the University of North Carolina system are in a better position than most people to judge how good a job the system’s 16 schools are doing.

Across the state, there are always plenty of people ready to criticize this or that in the system and fret over how much it all costs. But if you want the insight of those who in a position to know, ask people who studied at one of the schools and who have drawn on that experience as they make their way through adult life.

That’s why the positive results of a recent Gallup survey of 77,695 UNC system alumni are worthy of attention.

An impressive 64% of those who responded to the survey said they strongly agreed that their undergraduate education was worth its cost. By way of comparison, that’s 11% better than among similar alumni groups from public institutions across the country, and 14% better than among graduates of all colleges.

Responses of UNC system alumni also showed why they feel so strongly that their education was worthwhile: They’ve put the education to good use. They have higher than average rates of advanced degrees after college, and their average personal and household income figures are considerably higher than those of college graduates across the nation.

So, controversies and rising costs notwithstanding, that’s pretty strong evidence that the UNC system is doing a good job and making a difference in the lives of the people who study there.

There is one cloud worth noting in this otherwise rosy report. The respondents to the survey were older and whiter than the total population of alumni, about 77% white and with an average age of 48. It would be useful to hear from more minority alums, and from younger graduates.

Gallup officials said that the skewed results were typical: those are the groups that tend to be more responsive to surveys, and it happens everywhere, so national comparisons are still valid.

In practical terms, what do these positive results mean? They should mean that taxpayers, legislators and other leaders will see how important it is to make a UNC system education accessible to as many people as possible. These results are strong arguments for working to keep tuition affordable and to offer financial aid for deserving students who might not go to college otherwise.

The positive results are also reason to continue to invest in the people and facilities that make a UNC education so worthwhile.

And this evidence that the UNC system has been doing a lot right, for a long time, makes a strong case that legislators and the UNC Board of Governors should work to attract good administrators and then let them do their jobs.

The positive survey results are definitely not a reason to be complacent and think that the university system will continue to be successful no matter what. Attempts by the board and legislators to micromanage the universities, tinker with the curriculum and demand that schools be run as businesses will take their toll on outcomes and attitudes. So will turmoil of the sort we’ve seen with three top system administrators leaving in the first three months of this year.

The Gallup survey is strong evidence that, over the last several decades, North Carolina’s university system has served its people well.

Let’s do all we can to build on that strong foundation.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Higher Ed, Legislature, News

The week’s Top Stories on NC Policy Watch

1. Proposed legislation would dramatically weaken state hog farm oversight

A sentence here, a paragraph there. A strike-through, a repeal, a new section.

Individually, the Farm Act and the House and Senate budgets chip away at the incremental yet significant progress the state has made toward regulating industrialized livestock operations.

But taken in total, a half-dozen provisions create a safe house where these operations, particularly swine farms, can clandestinely conduct their business.

“It’s a coordinated and multi-pronged attack,” on laws protecting the environment and public health, said Will Hendrick, attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance. [Read more…]

Bonus read: The Farm Act, state budget are “erecting a fortress for the hog industry”

2. New app will allow North Carolina students to share anonymous tips about school threats

Middle-and high-school students across North Carolina will have an opportunity to download a new app next school year that allows them to anonymously report threats to school safety.

The “Say Something” reporting system will be offered to tens of thousands of students via a partnership between the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit based in Newtown, Connecticut that’s led by people who lost loved ones in the tragic 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting that left 28 people dead.

“Students play a critical role in helping to keep schools safe,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said during a press conference Thursday. “They may see and hear concerns that adults need to know about but may be reluctant to report it.” [Read more…]

3. Teachers would get 3.5 percent pay raise under proposed N.C. Senate budget

Teachers would get an average 3.5 percent pay raise over the next two years under a biennium spending plan released Tuesday by state Republican leaders.

The plan calls for spending $23.9 billion during the 2019-20 fiscal year, and it increases spending on public education by $1.3 billion over the next two years.

Senate leaders told reporters the pay increase would raise the average teacher salary to $54,500 per year over the biennium.[Read more…]

4. Senate budget writers to their “Trump country” constituents: “Drop dead”

In case you missed it, there was new confirmation this week that the people being disproportionately harmed by the refusal of North Carolina Republican senators to include Medicaid expansion in the budget bill they plan to adopt today are — wait for it — their own constituents.

It’s been common knowledge for a long time that lower-income rural communities are among the areas that suffer most from having high rates of uninsured residents, but a recent news story from our neighboring state of Virginia really brings this fact home.

This is from a Tuesday story in the Virginia Mercury entitled “Trump Country sees majority of new enrollees under Va.’s Medicaid expansion”:[Read more…]

Bonus video: Senate ignores Medicaid expansion in budget; Berger says it ‘disincentivizes folks to go to work’ (video)

5. Five basic truths to remember this week about the state budget

It’s one of the great and maddening ironies of the state lawmaking process in North Carolina that the single most important piece of legislation each year is perhaps the most poorly reported and one of the least well-understood.

Every year, as the fiscal year winds down toward its June 30 conclusion, state lawmakers birth a new state budget bill that runs to hundreds of pages and includes all sorts of fundamental decisions about state funding priorities and tax policy, not to mention scores of so-called “special provisions” (i.e. law changes unrelated to the budget that may or may not have been debated previously as the subject of another bill).[Read more…]

6. Hofeller files: GOP mapmaker helped develop Trump’s citizenship Census question

The master mapmaker behind North Carolina’s most contentious and allegedly gerrymandered voting districts apparently also played a role in developing the citizenship question proposed for the 2020 Census by the Trump administration.

Thomas Hofeller’s daughter, Stephanie Hofeller Lizon recently turned over several of his hard drives and digital files to voting rights group Common Cause as part of discovery in their North Carolina state partisan gerrymandering case Common Cause v. Lewis. The news released Thursday about Hofeller’s involvement in the 2020 Census question is the first bit of data released publicly from the “Hofeller files.” [Read more…]

Bonus Read: ACLU notifies US Supreme Court of new evidence in citizenship question case

7. Not so open: Critics say UNC Board of Governors excludes the public from its “public” meetings

Hoping to hear some discussion of the future of the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument, Lindsay Ayling and a few other UNC-Chapel Hill students attempted to attend last week’s meeting of the UNC Board of Governors.

Attempted, as it turns out, was the operative word.

Before the meeting began, while most of the seats in the board room were still empty, Ayling and two other students were told there was no room for them. All the chairs in the room – even the ones that appeared to be empty – were reserved in advance, they were told by campus police.[Read more…]


8. State budget, new scientific tests shine a light on NC’s growing drinking water pollution problem

PFAS contamination found in both Jones and Orange counties

Maysville, which sits on the rim of the Croatan National Forest in Jones County, is home to 1,000 people — about half of whom rely on the town’s sole drinking water well.

And that well, according to a brief sentence in the both the House and Senate versions of the state budget, is contaminated.

But the budget doesn’t say contaminated with what, only that Maysville needs $500,000 to construct a new public supply. [Read more…]

9. Weekly Editorial Cartoon: