Point of View

Undermining N.C.'s higher education goals

August 17, 2012 

A recent discussion by the UNC Board of Governors is a demonstration of the fading commitment to a historic North Carolina value and policy of promoting equal opportunity to higher education in our state. Board member squabbles should not mask that fact.

First the legislature, enabled by the governor and other state-level leaders, cut money to higher education with the understanding that the institutions, enabled by their governing boards, would be allowed to increase tuition and fees to some degree to cover the lost revenue.

In the short term, lawmakers limited the amount of increases allowed. More recently that restriction appears to be eroding.

Changing support levels during hard economic times is perfectly understandable. However, is it too much to expect that all parties would still be committed to and take actions to achieve the goal of equal opportunity for higher education? Examples might include implementing greater efficiencies at the campus level, with central administrations, and, yes, even freezing or cutting salaries above some reasonable level, for example over $200,000 per year.

To protect the principle of equal opportunity in the past, the Board of Governors required that a minimum amount of revenue generated by tuition increases be put into student aid. System President Tom Ross’ latest proposal would change the minimum to a cap, i.e., “no more than,” which could mean none all.

What is his rationale for this recommendation?

Board member Fred Eshelman calls the financial aid set-aside “a hidden tax,” casually equating tuition, a “user fee” paid by the user of the service, with a “tax,” which is imposed by duly elected representatives for activities deemed in the interest of all the community.

Eshelman is essentially transferring a radical political ideology directly into the governing board of the university. That, of course, was what his appointment was intended to do.

The practical effect then is to undermine North Carolina’s historic commitment in the constitution and in the years thereafter to provide equal opportunity for all our residents to higher education.

Adjustments in how this objective should be pursued are expected. However, how to implement the goal is not what is at stake in this discussion. Rather, in the broader context of North Carolina’s history, we are witnessing a fundamental change in our expectation of what the university’s role in our state is to be.

Further decentralization of decisions to the institutions will likely lead to raising the cap on the number of nonresidents admitted and to ongoing tuition and fee increases.

Fundamentally, what this discussion demonstrates is the disintegration of any state-level policy for higher education. Of particular interest is that, while the focus has been on the university system, a similar trend is clear in the North Carolina community college system.

While the university system, the governor and General Assembly discussed potential funding cuts and settled on a 9 percent tuition increase, the community colleges – operating in the overarching shadow of the university – proposed an approximate 20 percent increase. The General Assembly and governor accepted and applauded this decision while also allowing each campus the option of not providing students access to low-cost federal loans.

This radical and fundamental change in policy toward educational opportunity in North Carolina and toward the role of and access to the university deserves a much more focused discussion by elected officials. It should not be left willy-nilly to members of governing boards and administrators whose primary interests and commitments are more narrow.

A good start would be to expect both candidates for governor to address this issue. Further, the leadership of the two parties and the General Assembly should take responsibility for shaping and deciding our policy.

Clyde R. Ingle is the first college graduate in his extended family and the son of a Burlington textile worker. He holds two degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill and served as Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education (1984-1995) and as executive director of the Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating Board (1977-1984). He lives in Wilkes County.

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