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Raleigh keeps North Carolinians in a college crunch

Raising the Bar in North Carolina [1]This post was written by Michael C. Behrent, associate professor of history, Appalachian State University and is part of the Raise the Bar series featuring expert views on the North Carolina budget debate.

Is our state government doing all that it can to offer North Carolinians the affordable, high quality education they need to secure twenty-first century jobs? Based on data in a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [2], the answer is clearly “no.”

Affordable public education in North Carolina is a right. Our state constitution states that the legislature must ensure that “the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” Yet today, free public education is little more than a distant memory. To make matters worse, our citizens find themselves in a college crunch: they are being asked to pay more and more for public universities that are providing less and less.

According to the report, since 2008, tuition at North Carolina’s public universities has grown by 35.8% (or $1,759). The main reason? The 2008 recession, which cut the flow of tax dollars into state coffers at the very moment when many people were choosing college over a grim job market. As state funds dried up, most public universities turned to tuition hikes as an easy fix.

Yet the recession doesn’t bear all the blame: many state legislatures, including North Carolina’s, took advantage of the budget crisis to push questionable ideological agendas. Specifically, they rejected a balanced approach that would combine spending cuts with tax increases, preferring to slash budgets. Universities thus had little choice but to ask students to pay the balance.

The problem is that even stiff tuition increases did not allow public universities to operate at pre-recession levels. Consequently, just as they were asking students to pay more, they began to offer less. Since 2008, public universities have cut faculty, increased course sizes, and restructured programs due to budget constraints. Last year, UNC Greensboro announced plans to cut 120 jobs—or 5% of its workforce—to achieve its goal of reducing costs by $12.8 million.

Yet not only are North Carolinians getting less while paying more: they are being squeezed at a time when many Americans still struggle to make ends meet. Since 1973, the average cost of public education has skyrocketed, increasing by 270%. Meanwhile, median household income has stagnated (growing just 5%). The recession made a bad trend worse: as the report notes, tuition “jumped nearly 28 percent between the 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years, while real median income fell roughly 8 percent over the same time period.”

In short, despite North Carolina’s proclaimed commitment to free higher education, our leaders have consistently shifted costs from the state to students. Disinvestment from public higher education is misguided policy, pure and simple. It is bad for young people: students saddled with debt are less likely to buy homes, start businesses, and attend graduate school, presuming they don’t give up on college altogether. It is bad for society: studies have found that well educated communities are safer, healthier, and more civically engaged, in addition to having higher income levels across the board. And it is bad for the future: according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce almost two-thirds of all jobs in 2020 will demand some college training—yet our higher education system is expected to fall five million graduates short of what the labor market needs.

The good news is that, as the recovery continues, states are slowly reinvesting in public education. In the past year, state spending on higher education has grown, averaging 4% nationally. Yet North Carolina remains below the national average, with spending rising only 2.7%. Higher education is an essential public good. Can’t we do better?