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In 2019, with student debt and tuition soaring, is UNC still the university of the people?

[1]“I speak for all of us who could not afford to go to Duke,” Charles Kuralt once declared in 1993, in that inimitable oaken voice, during the UNC system’s bicentennial celebration.

Kuralt, speaking to an august assemblage that included former President Bill Clinton and then North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, was in the midst of one of the regal monologues the famous newsman was lauded for in his 22 years at CBS News. 

“What is it that binds us to this place as to no other?” he boomed. “It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls, or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming. … No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is, as it was meant to be, the university of the people.”

Kuralt, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus and Wilmington native, earned a place in a generation of UNC commercials for that dedication. You can also catch Kuralt’s folksy love letter to Chapel Hill at any UNC sporting event, although the kum-ba-yah has an oddly dissonant sound in 2019.

Today, it is difficult to imagine many institutions of higher education in North Carolina, much less in the United States, can reasonably claim to be the “university of the people” anymore, unless we are to change the definition of “the people.”

Today, it is difficult to imagine many institutions of higher education in North Carolina, much less in the United States, can reasonably claim to be the “university of the people” anymore, unless we are to change the definition of “the people.” 

Since 2008, tuition in the state’s public, four-year colleges – when adjusted for inflation – has ballooned by a robust 45 percent [2], a figure that is no outlier. The national tuition hike during that span is a hearty 36 percent.

A Forbes report last year noted the price of college today is rising almost eight times faster than wages. The result: a generation of debt. Student loans are now the largest portion of non-housing debt in the country.

“Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers remember working their way through college and graduating with little to no debt,” Forbes’ Camilo Maldonado wrote. “Sadly, that feat is virtually impossible for the current crop of students and recent graduates.”

When Kuralt spoke in 1993, the price of higher education had already begun its scaling of Everest, although not at today’s feverish pace. 

An August report from the Center for Responsible Lending [3] (CRL) found that student loan debt had risen by a mammoth 285 percent in the last decade, the second-largest increase in the nation. Today, the report found, more than 1.2 million North Carolinians hold roughly $44 billion in student debt. 

The CRL blamed a murderer’s row of culprits – predatory lenders, income inequality, an ugly legacy of underfunded Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), an increase in college enrollment, and sluggish wage growth – but somewhere near the top of that list sat state lawmakers. 

North Carolina, like nearly every state in the U.S., slashed higher education funding following the 2008 recession and has, like many states, reneged on its promise to restore funding levels since the recovery. The universities are not the only ones; K-12 schools can claim a seat [4]in this plundered assembly too. 

From 2008 to 2018, legislators gouged per-student funding in higher education by more than 18 percent. The universities turned, inevitably, to students to bridge the ravine.

CRL rightly wondered whether students who took on the debt received the same education anyway, given the requisite cuts to faculty, class sizes, course offerings and student services swallowed in the process.  

Despite this, or perhaps in spite of this, no one can rightfully claim North Carolina’s public universities are an embarrassment. Quite the opposite, the state’s flagship schools and its historically Black universities are lauded for their accomplishments because they are premier schools, a fact that makes these soaring figures, these assuredly stratifying prices, all the more ugly.

The ten-year period from 2008 to 2018 marked a boom time in for-profit higher education too, but students failed to reap the spoils. Such colleges – which cater, with precision, to poorer students and students of color – reported astronomically high debt loads and, in North Carolina, cratering graduation rates, the lowest in the nation. 

One in six North Carolina students is “severely” delinquent on student loan debt, the report found, and poorer families and families of color are significantly more at risk of defaulting on their loans. 

Whether these numbers bother you is likely a reflection of your political philosophy. It was President Reagan’s budget director who glibly remarked in 1981 that college financing is available “if people want to go to college bad enough.” That’s a fitting summation of Reagan’s bootstraps and bravado theology. This is, of course, the theology of the modern GOP, which, arguably, should stand for “Grand Old Privilege.”

[5]
President Reagan’s administration framed college affordability as a matter of effort.

The Reagan administration’s framing of higher education may have made some modicum of sense in those days, before an undergraduate degree supplanted the high school diploma as a bare necessity in many sectors.

Yet these numbers are not simply quantitative assessments of this system. Taken together, they make a qualitative statement about higher education in North Carolina and in the U.S. 

We stand on a precipice, one in which access to a basic component of success is reserved, almost exclusively, to those with a higher income. And if any family or student should wish, with all of that American gumption, to persist in higher education, they will enjoy a ruinous level of debt, which will severely blunt their ability to borrow, save, thrive and provide for their families.

We have asked our students to make an impossible choice. If there exists a more ghastly betrayal of the American dream, I cannot think of it.

“At least until recently, no one quarreled with the notion that we lead the world in higher education,” Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University and the ex-governor of Indiana told UNC students Tuesday night in Chapel Hill. 

College affordability is still not approached as the crisis it is in North Carolina. As if some believe the state’s “crown jewel” — a name often bestowed upon the UNC system by state leaders — should be reserved for royalty. 

Daniels, speaking at the behest of former Gov. Hunt, detailed a series of Purdue initiatives [6] since his arrival in 2013, many of them aimed at college affordability. To be fair, North Carolina has its own affordability programs [7]. And former UNC President Margaret Spellings made the cost of college a priority before her untimely departure nearly a year ago, reportedly over her frequent clashes with the UNC Board of Governors. Coincidentally, that board’s chairman, Harry Smith, stepped down Tuesday, beginning – one hopes – a new chapter for that polarizing panel.  

Yet college affordability is still not approached as the crisis it is in North Carolina. As if some believe the state’s “crown jewel” — a name often bestowed upon the UNC system by state leaders — should be reserved for royalty.  

“I would argue that higher education is now necessary for a stable life and a good job, in the way that K–12 education and a high-school degree was necessary 40 years ago,” the anthropologist and New York University professor Caitlin Zaloom told The Atlantic this month [8].

“We now have a system that requires K–16 education for financial stability, so it’s important to fund that—we wouldn’t ask people to pay for 5th grade, so we shouldn’t also ask people to be paying for sophomore year.”

If we do ask this, then it says a great deal about us. It says that we are comfortable with a future in which students – those who would toil and sustain North Carolina in the generations to come – are left behind or financially pillaged by higher education, consequences with monumental implications for North Carolina’s economy. 

Charles Kuralt is now 22 years in the grave, but if the legendary reporter had to deliver the same address today, perhaps he’d revise his comments.

Because, in 2019, who speaks for everyone who could not afford to go to UNC?