North Carolina has long benefited from one of the best-supported public university systems anywhere in the country. And the budget state lawmakers approved last month — the best budget for the system in a decade — will help keep it that way, strengthening higher education to meet new challenges in a changing economy.
The legislature fully funded enrollment growth for the state’s 17 public institutions, giving more North Carolinians the chance to pursue opportunity. And lawmakers bolstered the state’s historically black universities with targeted investments at Elizabeth City State University and North Carolina A&T. Most importantly, legislators committed full funding for NC Promise, an initiative that drops tuition to just $500 per semester at Western Carolina University, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Elizabeth City State University.
At a time when states across the country are struggling to rein in college costs, North Carolina has invested in a bold experiment to make higher education more affordable for families at all income levels. NC Promise lifts much of the burden on students without sacrificing quality, guaranteeing that every region of the state has an extraordinarily affordable option for earning a degree. And that’s on top of the solid state funding that keeps tuition at all of our public institutions far below the national average.
Keeping the balance between public support and personal investment in higher education has always been a challenge, and it was particularly tough during the Great Recession and the slow recovery that followed. But today, with a growing economy demanding an even better-educated workforce, we have the chance to make smart investments in the future. And North Carolina is seizing the moment.
Over the next few years, state support will allow our public universities to begin investing in advanced data analytics that can identify problems early and help more students graduate on time. Reducing the time it takes to earn a degree is a straightforward, common-sense reform that lowers costs for both families and taxpayers, making our universities more efficient without compromising value. It’s the kind of sound management that rarely earns headlines, but makes a real difference in the lives of students.
Lawmakers also backed a competitive grant program to accelerate high-value research, recognizing that University discoveries have made North Carolina a hub for new industries.
It has taken generations of patient commitment on the part of our citizens to build such a strong, coordinated system of public higher education. Our challenge in the years ahead is to make sure that those resources reach more North Carolinians, closing the gaps in opportunity that threaten to divide our state.
A few months ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education put our state on the cover, under the headline “The 2 North Carolinas.” A changing economy has created a divide between those with solid pathways to advanced education and prosperity and those who face a more uncertain future.
That inequality of opportunity — between thriving and struggling school districts; between suburban and rural students; between low-income families and their wealthier neighbors — weakens our core faith in the American Dream. Our public universities have a special obligation to address those inequities, to offer every talented and driven student a reasonable path to higher education.
That’s why we’ve made a public commitment to enroll and graduate more low-income students; to recruit more students from our rural communities and urban centers, places where higher education often seems out of reach; and to partner much more closely with public schools across the state so that students arrive on our campuses ready for college-level work.
If our state is going to thrive in the decades to come, there can’t be two North Carolinas. The University of the People has to remain the University of all the People.
There’s a lot of work ahead of us. But thanks to the steadfast support of our legislature and our citizens, we have the resources and the will to get it done.
Margaret Spellings in the president of the University of North Carolina.