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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

We're overspending on the UNC system

I’m at the stage of my life where I’m blessed to be paying huge sums for university tuition. In return, as a stakeholder I’m afforded glimpses of these institutions (American University in Washington, DC and Wake Technical Community College here). Gail finished her graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill last year, and I’ve had interactions with the Dept of Philosophy at UNC-CH for their Ethics program.

Comparing these institutions to Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, where I was either a student, an employee, or a faculty member from 1972 to 1984, it’s clear to me that times have changed enormously in higher education. I can sum up the changes in one phrase: universities are now living high on the hog. Facilities are posh, salaries are high, and programs other than teaching and research are abundant.

Am I anti-education? Of course not. Higher education has enriched my life, literally and figuratively, beyond measure. Nevertheless, I believe it’s fair to ask: are we over-investing in higher education? Have we reached a point of diminishing returns? Yes.

Here in North Carolina the General Assembly has just completed the state’s budget for July 2010 to June 2011. The budget is painful. The politically powerful UNC system pushed hard to avoid cuts, and in the end they took a relatively small cut. Of course, they aren’t reducing their spending that much; they are hiking tuition by as much as 18% to cover the shortfall.

Undoubtedly the UNC system is a plum for North Carolina. But my gut feel is that it’s time to stop increases in appropriations and enrollments. I am deeply skeptical of arguments that new incremental investments in the UNC system will produce big economic paybacks -- or that new incremental investments are needed to prevent deterioration of the state's competitiveness.

I also note that alumni are apparently willing to contribute massive amounts of money voluntarily to improve these schools’ facilities. Let them! It’s time to apply the principal of these endowments, and not just the income they throw off, to capital spending programs. If that takes legislative changes, so be it.

North Carolina would get more bang-for-the-buck by increasing investment in the community college system, which has none of the poshness or high salaries of the universities but serves far more people and provides job skills that the citizens across the state badly need.