Point of View

North Carolina's new, self-interested view of a college education

June 12, 2014 

The budget offered this week by the North Carolina House of Representatives includes an interesting provision. The House would like to study university tuition – specifically, why it keeps going up.

Lawmakers won’t have to look far to discover the primary cause. By and large, tuition is up because state funding is down. The legislature’s own Program Evaluation Division issued an impressively clear finding on the matter in December.

“As state support has declined, North Carolina students and their families have paid a higher share of the cost of their education,” wrote legislative analysts. “Cost shifting from taxpayers to students has been a driver of increased student debt and decreased college affordability, particularly for low-income students.”

Indeed, as policymakers have lost interest in our constitutional aspiration that “higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense,” students have been obliged to pick up the slack. Since 2007-08, students at the state’s public colleges are paying about $700 more toward their own education, while the state is paying $2,516 less.

This is not an accident; it is a policy choice. Our new political class is withdrawing support from the university not because it has to – higher education funding was actually up last year in 40 other states – but because it wants to. There is a growing belief that the public university should be less public.

And that makes perfect sense if one views education not as a broad, civic good, but as a private investment. “Tuition has been held far too low,” wrote George Leef, director of research for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, way back in 2000. “A substantial increase would be good policy. It would shift the burden away from taxpayers, many of whom derive no direct benefit from the UNC system, and onto students and their families, who do.”

At the time, that self-interested view of education was outside the mainstream in North Carolina. Today, it is much in vogue. “What are we teaching these courses for if they are not going to help get a job?” Gov. Pat McCrory asked in a widely noticed radio interview during his first months in office. His question nicely captures our new, market-driven idea of learning, wherein the purpose of knowledge is the improvement of one’s earning power. In our anxious age, perhaps there is merit to this line of thinking.

It is, though, a very different view of education from the one we’ve held, as a nation and as a state, for the past two centuries. The idea of a public university – our idea, from the earliest days of statehood – rests on the belief that we all share an interest in educating a new generation of citizens. That such an interest must be purely economic – that higher education must deliver an immediate, measurable, monetary return on investment – is a recent and radical notion.

For most of our history, it was widely thought that residents of North Carolina would be better off – civically, economically, socially, culturally, medically, morally, and spiritually – if more of us went to school. This confidence did not rest on an accountant’s assurance, but on the age-old truth that knowing is better than not knowing, that expanding the bounds of science and literature and thought is a worthy enterprise for a free society. That’s why the founders of our fine state included a public university among our earliest endeavors.

We’ve never relished paying for it, of course. Taxes have been annoying Americans since the dawn of the Republic, but not all levies are equally noxious. “The taxation about which we fought was taxation spent by a king in ostentation and oppression,” Gov. Charles Aycock pointed out back in 1902. “But the taxation that goes for the upbuilding of public schools is the very freedom and liberty of the people.”

The burden of teaching and learning, in other words, has long been seen as a prudent and public responsibility. To make the provision of knowledge akin to the purchase of private goods is to undermine one of the first pillars of a self-governing country.

North Carolina still has a strong system of higher education, and our tuition remains quite low by national standards. But unless our lawmakers reconsider an ideology that places individual interest above all else, the piecemeal privatization of this great public institution, which took the citizens of North Carolina more than 200 years to build, will proceed apace.

Eric Johnson is a writer in Chapel Hill.

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