Thursday, June 2, 2016

Lower tuition principles get lost in arguments

A bold proposal to cut tuition at five University of North Carolina campuses is in retreat after suspicions that the proposal was an insidious attack on historically black colleges and universities. The latest plan is to remove the three HBCUs in the proposal and cut tuition at only two campuses — Pembroke and Western Carolina.

The bold plan would have cut tuition to $1,000 per year ($500 per semester) at the five campuses, all of which are struggling. The state would make up the loss of tuition revenue by appropriating up to $70 million for the cut-rate schools. Skeptics pointed out that legislators could guarantee the funds to fill the tuition gap next year, but no legislature can guarantee action by future assemblies. HBCU supporters had no confidence in legislative promises.

Some of the HBCU arguments cannot stand up to scrutiny. Supporters argued that lowering tuition might attract more students seeking lower-cost college, and that might change the culture of the HBCU campuses. That argument is no more valid than complaints 50 years ago that integrating traditionally all-white university campuses would change the culture, achievements and public support for those campuses. Federal law and court decisions swatted away that complaint. HBCUs have played a huge role in the state's educational history, but that role cannot be frozen in the pre-integration past.

What no one has asked so far is this: Why doesn't the legislature reduce tuition at all 16 campuses of UNC? After all, the state constitution calls for public higher education to be offered free to the extent practicable. Cutting tuition to $1,000 a year would get closer to the state constitution's lofty goal and would adjust the burden of higher education costs from the students (and their parents) to the general public, which benefits from the university and the education of state residents even if they do not take advantage of educational opportunities. The state could make up the loss of tuition revenue (hundreds of millions of dollars) but only with a renewed commitment by legislators to provide higher education for all North Carolina residents at all 16 university campuses.

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