There weren’t a lot of smiling faces at this morning’s Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education meeting. UNC President Erskine Bowles, State Board Chair, Bill Harrison, State Superintendent June Atkinson and Community Colleges President Scott Ralls all took turns commenting on the impacts of last year’s budget cuts and their plans for navigating the current budget difficulties.
Regarding higher education, outgoing UNC President Erskine Bowles said UNC will be able to absorb the projected 2 percent budget reduction ($52 million) because of what the system has already done and because of how it has planned. Bowles said most of the new cuts will come from the administrative side. However, he warned any cuts above the 2 percent would likely impact the academic side.
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Interestingly, UNC is also asking the legislature to repeal the legislative tuition increase implemented last year and to reinstate the university’s ability to raise resident student tuition. The new proposal gives individual institutions control over the funds. Current law has all revenue from tuition increases reverting to the General Fund. The change would cost the state about $34 million in tuition revenue. Bowles said the money would be used for student financial aid, attracting faculty and student retention. While there are strong arguments for giving individual campuses control over these resources, it might be a hard sell in this economic climate.
Bowles was also pressed on one of UNC’s thorniest issues: graduation rates. The UNC president candidly admitted the problem is not likely to improve significantly until some of the factors that feed into the problem are attacked at the K-12 level. Bowles called UNC graduation rates “better” but not where anyone wants them to be. About 35 percent of UNC students graduate in four years. After six years, that percent rises to about 59, just above the national average. The UNC president has said he would support tying enrollment growth funds to graduation rates. The latter proposal is a good idea and an effective way to bring accountability and action to a serious problem.