Access to affordable postsecondary education is important to building a workforce in North Carolina that attracts and retains good-paying jobs across the state. Around two out of every three jobs in the state will require some form of post-secondary education by the year 2020. Our state can meet this challenge, but only if we make sure that more people can access and complete these programs. And the biggest barrier to this remains the unaffordability of post-secondary education.
Unfortunately, in recent years, North Carolina has fallen short on the higher education affordability front. Students and families have had to shoulder more of the cost of college. Since 2009, the tuition cost at our 58 community colleges has increased 81 percent. At public four-year universities, average tuition has increase nearly 50 percent since 2008 while state funding per student has declined by 15 percent over this period.
Instead, lawmakers have prioritized tax cuts that largely benefit the state’s highest income earners and profitable corporations and will reduce annual state revenue by more than $2 billion once fully in place. These are dollars that could be used to make college more affordable for North Carolina students and families.
A college degree is not only associated with greater state productivity but also with higher median wages for workers. However, paying for college has often been a deal-breaker for many people. A survey conducted by the nonpartisan nonprofit, Public Agenda found the number one reason students leave school before earning a degree or certificate is the need to work and make money. Furthermore, the rising cost of a college education discourages students – particularly those from low-income families – from pursuing a post-secondary education at all. Consequently, cost becomes a barrier to opportunity for North Carolinians who want to improve their economic prospects by getting the skills and training needed in a 21st-century economy.
Students currently enrolled in community colleges are receiving a much less bang for their buck in regards to education instruction and services received. For the current academic year, tuition per credit hour is now $76, up from $42 in 2009. This means current students could have gotten nearly twice as much in education services back in 2009, which would allow for more courses to be taken and promote the completion of a program of study. Similarly, the average tuition for the current academic year at public four-year universities is 76 percent higher compared to the 2008-09 academic year. At UNC-Chapel Hill, the state’s flagship public four-year university, tuition has increased 85 percent, more than $3,000 a year, since 2009.
Amid the rising cost of a post-secondary education, lawmakers have not boosted need-based financial aid to help students and families, nor have they restored the $660 million in funding cuts made to our four-year public universities in the years since 2010. Meanwhile, students are taking on greater levels of debt to pay for their education as financial aid provides too little to meet rising tuition and costs of living. Fully 90 percent of federal Pell grant recipients—the lowest-income students pursuing a postsecondary education—graduate with debt. Even more troublingly, one in three students that receives a Pell grant leaves college before completing a program of study, yet still carries an average debt load of $9,000.
Recent efforts in North Carolina to limit the annual increase in student fees, offer a fixed-tuition option at four-year public universities, and place a cap on the amount of tuition charged at three targeted institutions fail to truly address the affordability issue. This is because our public universities still need adequate resources to provide students a quality education and support services. Neither limiting fees charged by public universities nor offering a fixed-tuition option addresses the elephant in the room: the significant state funding cuts to our public universities since 2009 that have not been restored. We simply can’t cut and cap our way to maintaining a high quality public university system.
Instead, lawmakers need to fully assess the real costs associated with 2- and 4-year degrees, including realistic costs of living, and align financial aid, tuition per credit hour, and state funding to meet these costs. Efforts in other states like Wisconsin have shown promising results from state-level work study programs that align low- and middle-income student work opportunities with the needs of local employers. This program allows students to earn work-study aid while gaining work experience useful for their post-graduation career.
Additionally, 2- and 4-year institutions should be encouraged to take a flexible approach to minimum credit-hour and GPA requirements for students receiving federal financial aid. All too often, low-income students can’t maintain the minimum-required course load because they need to work to support themselves and their families. This contributes to their dropping out before completing a program of study.
Taking all this together, it is clear that North Carolina needs to double down on financial and programmatic investments in higher education, rather than continuing to starve 2- and 4-year institutions of the resources they need to help build the workforce of the future.
Cedric Johnson is a Policy Analyst at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center.