CHAPEL HILL — As evidenced by Kiplinger's once again ranking UNC-Chapel Hill the best value in public higher education, higher education in North Carolina remains stronger and more accessible than in most other state university systems. But such rankings ultimately ask the wrong questions. They fail to ask whether the best public universities remain affordable in absolute terms.
They also allow legislators and administrators in states such as North Carolina to justify massive budget cuts and tuition increases in already trying economic times, employing the logic that we are "still outperforming our peers."
Take, for example, the comment by UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp that "what's cool about Carolina is that it really took three years of the crisis before we got to this point, whereas around the country you were seeing scenes like this play out three years ago."
As a senior undergraduate at Chapel Hill, I respect the chancellor's leadership on a number of fronts. But his perspective on tuition is myopic. Future generations will little note that it took us three years before we raised tuition to the exorbitant levels of our peers. Can't the country's best public university do better than "cool" when it comes to access and affordability?
Comparisons, like Kiplinger's, to peer institutions may say something about competitiveness, but they say little about whether we are upholding the principle of a truly public education. What this ranking means is that we are losing our ethos of "University of the People" at a slower rate than the universities of Virginia or Michigan. That is not good enough.
What if we compared UNC-Chapel Hill to itself? How would today's Carolina score against the Carolina of a recent past?
Consider the following, from the university's Office of Institutional Research and Assessment: Since 2003, the number of students taking out loans has increased by nearly 47 percent. The total debt accumulated by borrowers has increased by over 40 percent since the same year. And the total cost of attendance is now 17.6 percent of the median family income of a Carolina student, compared with 11 percent in 1995.
All of this despite laudable efforts, like the Carolina Covenant, to provide loan-free aid to needy students.
As Mary Cooper, the student body president, told the campus Board of Trustees on Nov. 16, "It is easy to call ourselves the University of the People during years of budget stability, but the values we purport to hold are measured by our commitment to them during hardship."
In the coming months, as the UNC System Board of Governors meets to discuss tuition hikes proposed around the state, and as legislators consider next year's budget, our leaders need to ask a question more difficult than Kiplinger's: Is this state honoring its commitment - constitutionally mandated - to public and accessible higher education?
Gregory Randolph is majoring in religious studies and South Asian studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a former N&O "Our Lives" contributor and a Raleigh native.