Rob Christensen

Can working families still afford UNC?

William C. Friday, the highly respected former University of North Carolina president, must be spinning in his grave.

Few subjects were closer to Friday’s heart than keeping the 17-campus UNC system affordable to the residents of North Carolina. He knew that North Carolina was not a rich state – and that the university system represented an escalator of upward mobility for thousands of hard-working families who wanted to see their children earn an education and live a better life.

But in-state tuition and fees at UNC campuses – which is really a tax on brains, grit and personal initiative – has been skyrocketing. At N.C. State University, tuition and fees rose from $5,002 in 2007-08 to $8,133 this year. At UNC-Chapel Hill, it rose from $5,176 to $8,107.

Last month, the UNC Board of Governors raised N.C. State University’s tuition and fees again to $8,407 for next year, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s to $8,334 – a significant increase from what it was several years ago.

The tuition increases are a means of compensating for declining state funding and rising costs. State appropriations to the UNC system have declined since 2008-2009 – first under Democratic legislatures as they sought to deal with the recession and then under Republicans who emphasized passing the largest tax cuts in North Carolina history.

North Carolina is hardly alone in this trend. As of last year, 48 states were spending less per student than they did before the recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

The budget proposed last week by GOP Gov. Pat McCrory promises more of the same. He recommended a $2.6 billion budget for higher education, or a 1.2 percent cut.

To illustrate the stunning loss of momentum in the UNC system, we’ve gone from an eight-year period (2000-01 to 2008-09) where state funding of higher education rose from $1.7 billion to $2.7 billion to an eight year period (2008-09 to 2015-16) where it has dropped from $2.7 billion to $2.6 billion.

McCrory is one of only eight governors who are pushing to cut higher education spending, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Most notable among the others are presidential hopefuls Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

What Walker, Jindal and McCrory all have in common is they have all pushed through major tax cuts.

“It’s not a coincidence that those are the states that have enacted pretty large tax cuts in the past few years that have made it really difficult for their lawmakers to put money into higher education because a lot of those dollars aren’t there any more, even though the underlying economy is starting to come back,” Michael Mitchell, a state fiscal policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told U.S. News and World Report.

The McCrory budget will put pressure on the UNC Board of Governors to raise tuition again and again. The budget squeeze has other effects as well – positions eliminated, increased class sizes, and more reliance on poorly paid, non-tenured teaching positions.

McCrory, in his budget, argues that North Carolina has the third-lowest state tuition in the country after Louisiana and Arkansas. That may be true by some measuring stick. While UNC is still a good value, other measuring sticks – such as U.S. News and World Report’s listing of colleges – find a couple of dozen cheaper campuses. And those do not include Hope Scholarship programs offered in neighboring states such as Georgia and Tennessee, which use state lottery money to knock $5,000 off the tuition of state students with good grades.

There is now increasing talk on the UNC board about shutting down campuses as a way to cut costs. It would likely focus on the schools with the least amount of political clout in the legislature – the five historically black campuses.

That too could have a major impact on upward mobility in the state, because a large number of their students are the first in their families to attend college.

North Carolina is struggling as a result of the collapse of the textile, furniture and tobacco industries. It ranked 38th among states in per capita income in 2012, compared with 34th in 2002, and 31st in 1991.

That is the rationale put forth by Republicans on why North Carolina needs to try a new approach – lower taxes, fewer regulations and smaller government.

But those same figures also suggest that it will be more difficult for young people from financially struggling families to better themselves through a college education.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or