The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) , a nonpartisan organization that provides independent data and policy recommendations to its 16 member states in the southeast, has published new state-specific data on college affordability  that paint a damning picture of the General Assembly’s record. The report shows that both cost of attendance and student loan debt have risen dramatically from 2008 to 2014. These increases disproportionately create barriers to economic advancement for students of color and students from low-income families.
North Carolina’s constitution  places a very important responsibility on the General Assembly. State leaders are required to provide higher education for free “as far as practicable.” Article IX, Section 9 reads:
The General Assembly shall provide 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.”
Of course, the “as far as practicable” language provides policymakers legal wiggle room to place some of the financial burden of college attendance on students. But the SREB data make it awfully hard to argue that General Assembly leaders are continuing to meet their constitutional responsibility.
The SREB report shows that the share of family income required to support a full-time student at a North Carolina college or university has increased dramatically from 2008 to 2014. On average, families in North Carolina needed to devote 13.0 percent of their income in 2008 to pay for a full-time student at one of the state’s four research universities (UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro). By 2014, the cost nearly doubled, rocketing to 21.0 percent of average family income.
The story is similar at four-year non-research institutions of the UNC System (e.g., Appalachian State, East Carolina University, UNC Asheville, etc.), where the percentage of family income needed to attend full-time has also nearly doubled. In 2008, the average North Carolina family had to devote just 15.0 percent of their income to pay for a full-time student, compared to 25.7 percent in 2014.
The story is slightly better at North Carolina’s community colleges, but the percentage of family income necessary to attend full time has still increased over this time period: from 14.8 percent in 2008 to 18.1 percent in 2014.
The SREB data also show that the increasing financial burden to attend colleges falls most harshly on low-income families. Even after accounting for need-based federal and state grants, low-income families must dedicate a greater share of their income to attend a North Carolina college.
Higher education is supposed to be the path towards upward economic mobility. However, the disproportionate cost of college for low-income North Carolinians closes off this path for a growing share of the state’s populace. State and federal need-based aid are clearly failing to create equal opportunity for all students to advance their education beyond high school.
Not surprisingly, the SREB data also show increasing levels of student debt. North Carolina students are taking on about 45 percent more debt than they assumed in 2008, according to the SREB report. The average North Carolina student took on $14,328 to attend a research university as a full-time student in 2008, but this number climbed to $20,325 in 2014. As Marion Johnson of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center’s noted in a recent report, student loan debt is both a symptom and a cause of racial inequity . The increasing cost of North Carolina’s colleges and universities is disproportionately burdening Black students with high levels of student loan debt.
It’s no coincidence that state support for the University of North Carolina system has deteriorated since 2008 . Since 2008, state funding per student has decreased by 14 percent. Over the same period, average, inflation-adjusted tuition and mandatory fees increased by 48 percent. These changes go hand-in-hand. Recent research has shown that “the single biggest driver of rising tuitions for public colleges has been declining state funding for higher education .” In other words, responsibility for the rapidly increasing cost of attendance at North Carolina’s institutes of higher education falls squarely on the shoulders of the North Carolina General Assembly.
The SREB data should serve as a loud and clear wake-up call to North Carolina’s policymakers. North Carolina’s constitution establishes the goal of making higher education free for all of the state’s students, not just rich ones. But years of austerity budgets have disproportionately put higher education out of reach for North Carolina’s low-income and minority students. Such policies would be unwise and immoral in any state, but are particularly egregious given North Carolina’s abysmal track record in promoting inter-generational economic advancement . General Assembly leaders must change course and recommit to investing in higher education so that a college degree can be as free of expense as practicable for all of the state’s students, rather than just a select few.
Kris Nordstrom is a Policy Analyst the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project .