General Assembly’s support for higher education needs to move from hyperbole to reality

General Assembly’s support for higher education needs to move from hyperbole to reality

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To say that the new two-year budget approved by state lawmakers represents “the best budget in a decade” for North Carolina’s public four-year universities (as UNC president Margaret Spellings did in a recent Charlotte Observer op-ed) is hyperbole that reflects a troubling new “normal” in which expectations for our state have been drastically lowered. Facts simply don’t support this inflated claim.

The hard reality is that the new budget continues to ignore boosting state support for the UNC system to ensure access to (and affordability of) a high-quality college education. Furthermore, eroding state support for higher education foregoes opportunities that can help keep our state at the forefront of research and innovation – a realm that attracts industry into the state and helps create good-paying jobs in all of our communities.

Under the new budget, total state spending for the UNC System is $41.4 million, or a mere 1.5 percent, above prior fiscal year (FY) spending. When one excludes funding for a modest pay increase for state employees, however, net new spending for FY ‘18 is actually flat compared to the prior year’s budget. This stagnant level of support was only made possible through the legislature’s application of $45 million in “lapsed” one-time state dollars from the prior year’s budget in the new budget. Clearly, deeming the use of such existing dollars as “new” spending is incorrect and deceptive.

A look at state support for the UNC system over the past decade further highlights a trend of eroding support. Since 2008, total full-time equivalent enrollment in the UNC system has increased by more than 18,000 students. During this time period, state funding per student decreased by 14 percent, while average tuition and mandatory fees increased by 48 percent, when adjusted for inflation. This means our public universities have been charged with serving more students amid eroding state support, while the cost of a college education has been shifted more to students and families.

While additional funding is not a panacea for all of the many challenges that confront the UNC system, adequate resources are clearly essential. Unfortunately, rather than restoring significant state funding cuts to the UNC system that were imposed during the fiscal crisis brought on by the Great Recession, state leaders have steadily marched in the opposite direction in recent years.

The new budget provides no additional state funding beyond enrollment growth for student support services or programmatic needs to promote college completion. And funding for enrollment growth has been taking place every year anyway, so highlighting this funding in the new budget as indicative of a commitment to higher education essentially means lowered expectations for North Carolina. It’s also another instance of mischaracterizing what really amounts to a tiny step as some kind of giant leap forward.

This picture comes into even sharper relief when one considers the “management flexibility” and “efficiency” reductions that have regularly been imposed on the UNC system in recent years. When one includes the cuts of this kind that are included in the new budget, the grand total amounts to more than $813 million since 2008. While the management flexibility cuts purport to give campuses discretion in how they are imposed, they still take a toll and come on top of millions more in other more targeted funding cuts that have been imposed over the past decade. To make matters even more challenging, under the new budget, need-based financial aid provided via lottery receipt dollars remains stuck at the 2012 level.

As expectations for our public universities and students continue to grow, state support that makes sure adequate infrastructure is in place to support these expectations continues to decline. The claim that the new budget represents the best budget for the UNC system in a decade is, if anything, more of a sad commentary on how dire the situation has become than any kind of legitimate grounds for celebration. A significantly greater state-level commitment to support our public post-secondary institutions – public four-year universities and community colleges – is needed to turn the tide and get us onto a path where we can transform hyperbolic rhetoric to reality.

Cedric Johnson is a Policy Analyst with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center.