Point of View

Lofty subsidies for arts education

January 18, 2010 

— In Winston-Salem, a sacred cow is munching on taxpayer resources. It's called the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Rarely is spending on this scared cow questioned, and yet, per student, UNCSA is the most expensive school in the state system.

North Carolina taxpayers paid $24,943 per student there in fiscal year 2008-09. That's just appropriations, which don't include capital costs such as new buildings. The closest second was UNC-Chapel Hill at $21,444 per student, followed by N.C. State at $18,284.

Consider that in-state college students at the School of the Arts paid only $3,224 in tuition. Out-of-staters, who make up about half the student body, paid only $15,101. (Peer private conservatories charge twice that.)

Should taxpayers have to subsidize UNCSA students to this degree? At all?

Some say UNCSA provides a "public benefit." But in a 2009 economic impact study of UNC system schools, economist Michael Walden omitted the School of the Arts. Walden noted that information about graduates' salaries was limited and "often showed starting salaries lower than those for high school graduates." So, at best, no one is measuring UNCSA's monetary benefits to North Carolina. At worst, it's a gross malinvestment of taxpayer resources.

Public benefit can also be interpreted as "increasing the quality of life" for North Carolinians. Perhaps the quality of life for arts lovers in Winston is improved, but the school is not likely to improve the well-being of any given North Carolinian taken at random, much less a majority of citizens - even marginally.

UNCSA was the first publicly funded arts conservatory in the U.S.. Some say this fact makes it unique and innovative. But there is no broad category in which UNCSA is unique - except in its ability to shift the bulk of costs onto taxpayers. Indeed, 48 other states manage to have both arts and arts education without a public conservatory.

If the goal were simply to have more art in the state, at $27 million a year (the state appropriation for 2009-10 operating expenses), we could pay 1,000 artists salaries of $27,000 each to live and work here. That would be a more efficient way of attracting the "creative class."

Unfortunately, fewer than 15 percent of UNCSA's graduates remain in the state, according to data derived from an alumni newsletter. So what is the goal of the public conservatory? We're not only being asked to bankroll professional training for people likely to leave the state, but we're pushing young people toward careers with dim prospects, as measured by starting salaries.

Granted, some students want only the experience of an arts education. In other states they obtain this by paying as much as $30,000 per year to get it. Is this experience something taxpayers should reasonably be expected to supply?

Ideally, UNCSA would be self-supporting. Thirty million dollars per year could simply be returned to taxpayers and the school put on auction. Alternatively, the state could use the spared resources for groups like the North Carolina Symphony. When one considers that fine arts are patronized largely by the well-to-do, however, it's hard to justify any state subsidies at all. Resources are scarce. Potholes need filling. Taxes are going up.

At a minimum, UNCSA should be asked to bring per-student costs in line with the state average. That could mean charging more for tuition (I recommend doubling it), charging high schoolers tuition (as the school did prior to 2001), chasing more charitable dollars and being more entrepreneurial overall. Most of the cost-per-student disparity comes from a 9-to-1 student/teacher ratio. Why couldn't the School of the Arts use distance-learning technology to reduce costs in non-arts-oriented classes such as math and history?

None of this is to suggest UNCSA doesn't have talented students and fine faculty. It does. (I've seen them first-hand.) But when considering the overall benefit to the state, we need to take a close look at the things legislators are spending other people's money on. It is true that, compared with a flagship school like UNC-Chapel Hill, $27 million is a drop in the bucket. But drops add up. We have to start somewhere.

Until we develop reasonable criteria for what constitutes real public benefit, ongoing special interests like the UNC School of the Arts will continue gobbling up state resources. Think about it: beyond tax-exempt status, religion gets no subsidies. It does just fine.

Max Borders is executive editor at Free To Choose Network. He is the author of "The UNC School of the Arts: Should It Be Self-Supporting?" published by the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (popecenter.org).

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