Ever since Republicans gained majorities in the North Carolina General Assembly in 2010 and won the governor’s office in 2012, Democrats and Progressives have lamented the decline of higher education and especially the University of North Carolina System. Critics of North Carolina Republicans point to budget cuts, a supposed obsession with jobs over knowledge, the ouster of Tom Ross and the lack of pay raises to make their case.
Outgoing UNC President Tom Ross said, “The state is paying 14 percent less per degree, even as the system produces 18 percent more graduates than it did five years ago. … [B]ut we are teetering on the edge.” A recent Charlotte Observer editorial criticized the Board of Governors’ removal of Tom Ross, opining, “We fear this maneuvering is only the beginning of politics chipping away at a long history of sound decision-making.”
What are conservatives and others to make of these statements? Is higher education in North Carolina really teetering, on a precipice, or are these complaints just more overheated rhetoric coming out of Raleigh and Chapel Hill?
One thing lacking from all of these statements is context. Since budget levels – correctly or incorrectly – are perceived as reflective of priorities, it is helpful to review historical data on education spending in North Carolina. Graph I (below) provides a quarter-century of data on full-time equivalent (FTE)
enrollment and educational appropriations and total revenue per student for North Carolina. The graph reflects 2014 constant dollar appropriations for public four-year (UNC campuses) and two-year community colleges in North Carolina.
The first thing you notice about the graph is that over a quarter century, per student appropriations mirror a general wave-like pattern of ascending for a few years and then declining for a few years. Over the past 25 years, approximately half the time per student educational appropriations were less than the previous year. These declines are concentrated in three major time periods overshadowed by economic downturns: 1989 to 1992, 2001 to 2005, and 2009 to 2011.
A quick review of spending patterns tells us budget reductions are certainly nothing new. When compared to political leadership, the patterns also tell us it’s not accurate to call one party pro-education and the other “anti-education.” Both parties have presided over both growing and declining education budgets. It’s interesting to note that the first multi-year drop (1989-1992) in educational per student appropriations came with a Republican governor and a legislature controlled by Democrats. During the period 2001 to 2005, the longest period of multi-year declines in per-student appropriations, Democrats were in charge of the General Assembly and the Governor’s Office.
The most recent period from 2009-2014 has seen considerable activity. During the Great Recession years of 2009-2011, Democrats controlled both chambers of the Assembly as well as the Governor’s Office, but under their leadership NC saw steep declines in per student support. The most recent period, 2011 to 2014, reflects an actual uptick in per student support, from $10,773 (2011) to $11,729 (2014). This period coincides with the election of a Republican Governor and Republican majorities in the state House and state Senate.
This reality contradicts the conventional wisdom about who supports public education and the direction of education funding.
It is also interesting to note changes in FTE enrollment. FTE Enrollments were flat in the 1990s and grew steadily from 2000 to 2010. Surprising as it may seem, since 2010, FTE enrollment for four-year and two-year public institutions has actually declined.
None of these changes occurs in a vacuum. The recession impacted all 50 states. But how did North Carolina fare relative to other states? Graph II lists the ten highest positive percentage changes in fiscal support for higher education from 2008-2013 by state. As you can see, North Carolina’s increase was the fifth highest in the country at a net 6.6 percent. Only Alaska, Illinois, North Dakota, and Wyoming had larger increases during the time period. According to the full table (see here), only 12 states had increases; 38 states had negative growth, with the average differential being minus-10.8 percent.
Critics of Republican education policies say North Carolina is moving in a direction that is harmful to our institutions and our young people. Do others who watch public higher education share these concerns? Are Republican policies harming access to our educational institutions?
Business and industry don’t see a decline. The amount of money spent on R&D on campuses throughout the state increased from $2.16 billion in 2011 to $2.68 billion in 2014.
Nor do other observers see a slump. In 2014, according to Kiplinger’s , UNC Chapel Hill ranked first among institutions that provide the best value to in-state students. (It placed second among out-of-state students.) This is the 14th consecutive year UNC Chapel Hill has claimed the top spot. Chapel Hill also claimed the top spot among best public colleges by the Princeton Review.
Other North Carolina schools have also continued to gain recognition. In 2014 Kiplinger’s named North Carolina State the fourth best overall value among public colleges. More regional schools – such as East Carolina University and Appalachian State University – continue to do well in national rankings, as does the UNC School of the Arts. Such notices are signs of institutional health and trust – not decline. Citizens, businesses, government and industry are willing to invest in our public institutions because they see that our UNC institutions and community colleges provide a great education for young people. The high rankings reflect those realities and deny the message of the critics who say our state’s higher education is in decline.
What about insiders? Talk to instructors at any of the state’s 58 community colleges about the customized training community colleges provide for local businesses. Or talk with UNC researchers who have helped to create 150 new businesses that employ 38,000 people and over $7 billion in annual revenue.
Does this sound like a system of higher education in decline? Public higher education in North Carolina is an $11 billion-dollar industry. Like all similar, large public educational enterprises, there are plenty of strengths and weaknesses. Anyone who reviews the snapshots can only conclude the conventional wisdom doesn’t always square with reality. It’s time the facts start to change minds.
 State Higher Education Finance FY14 Report and State-State Wave Charts, Published by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Published April 2015, Available at: http://www.sheeo.org/sites/default/files/project-files/SHEF%20FY%202014-20150410.pdf and http://www.sheeo.org/resources/publications/shef-%E2%80%94-state-higher-education-finance-fy14
 From Grapevine Fiscal Year 2013-14, Illinois State University.
 Kiplinger’s: Best College Values 2015: available at: http://www.kiplinger.com/tool/college/T014-S001-kiplinger-s-best-values-in-public-colleges/index.php
 University of North Carolina Chapel Hill: Recent Rankings and Ratings, available at: http://uncnews.unc.edu/rankings/
 North Carolina State University Rankings, available at: https://www.ncsu.edu/about/rankings/
 See UNC Research, available at: http://research.unc.edu/