Doing Better at Doing Good

Getting college costs under control is key to boosting education levels in N.C.

August 3, 2013 

As students prepare to flock to our state’s colleges and universities this month for the fall semester, here’s a statistic worth noting: Just 27 percent of adults in North Carolina hold a bachelor’s or more advanced degree.

That’s 3 percentage points behind the national average, and it’s a trend that puts our state’s workers, business recruitment efforts and overall economic growth at risk. According to a study released last year by the Brookings Institution, 43 percent of job openings in the U.S.’s top 100 metro areas – including Charlotte, Greensboro/Winston-Salem and the Triangle – require a bachelor’s degree or more.

There’s no single way to boost educational attainment, but there’s one barrier that’s been getting a lot of attention – the rapidly escalating cost of higher education.

As William K. Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, notes, “Over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees in the United States has increased more than 440 percent.”

Those increases amount to four times the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, the global economic crisis of the past five years has decimated the finances of many families and also drained tax revenues, prompting states to slash support of their public university systems.

North Carolina has trimmed aid for public higher education by well over $200 million since 2008, triggering double-digit tuition increases throughout the UNC system. That’s contributed to rising debt for students. More than half of bachelor’s degree recipients at North Carolina’s public and private colleges and universities graduate with student debt – averaging nearly $21,000, or about $5,000 less than the U.S. average.

The good news: Several institutions across North Carolina are demonstrating leadership nationally with their efforts to make higher education more affordable.

Some dramatic cuts made

Belmont Abbey, which is private, made headlines late last year, announcing it would cut its annual tuition by 33 percent to $18,500 this fall. By comparison, average tuition during the 2012-13 academic year at North Carolina’s 35 four-year colleges and universities stood at about $25,500. Belmont Abbey’s goal was to make a first-rate education more accessible, and its move has generated record numbers of inquiries and applications.

William Peace University in downtown Raleigh sliced tuition by nearly 8 percent to $23,700 for the 2012-13 academic year and froze it there for the upcoming year.

Not far from Belmont Abbey, Davidson College has turned heads as well by removing loans from the financial aid packages it offers students. The Davidson Trust provides grants instead, with amounts ranging from a couple thousand dollars to the nearly $55,000 that Davidson charges annually for tuition, fees and room and board.

As a story last year by Bloomberg BusinessWeek explained, Davidson is not the first college to partner with students on debt-free degrees, but it is one of the smallest and least well endowed – and its daring experiment is being monitored by hundreds of similarly positioned peers around the country.

Many other institutions are doing their part as well. Collectively, in fact, our state’s private higher education institutions award $500 million annually in grants to students. And even with the deep funding cuts absorbed by the UNC system over the past several years, UNC-Chapel Hill was ranked this year as the best value in American public higher education by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine – for the 12th time.

Working together

What is the next frontier for institutions looking to keep their costs under control? Collaboration.

Most of the state’s private colleges and universities are part of the NCICU Collaboration Initiative, organized by advocacy group North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities and supported by the Cannon Foundation. It creates volume discount purchasing opportunities for goods and services. NCICU President Hope Williams says the collaborative is exploring a health plan that could help manage costs for faculty and staff across private institutions. Discussions are also under way about leveraging each other’s academic programs to increase the range of course options available for students while reducing costs.

Getting higher education costs under control remains a massive challenge and also one with significant implications for the well-being of our workforce and economic climate. Hopefully the pioneering moves of some of our state’s universities will inspire others to take action– and ultimately encourage more North Carolinians to pursue post-secondary degrees.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of "Life Entrepreneurs." Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book "The Messy Quest for Meaning" and blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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