Opinion: Daily Journal

Truth & Fiction on Colleges

RALEIGH – I’m putting the finishing touches on Agenda 2002: A Candidate’s Guide to Key Issue in North Carolina Public Policy, a John Locke Foundation primer on everything you need to know about state and local public policy issues. A 62-page tome (but don’t worry, a lot of it consists of graphs and charts so even politicians can read it), Agenda 2002 draws on contributions from a dozen Locke Foundation staffers and adjunct scholars, and is full of interesting tidbits of information.

Here’s one that ought to put to rest some of the mythology advanced by the university lobby, one of the most powerful interest groups in state government. First, don’t believe what you may have heard about how recessions and parsimonious state lawmakers have conspired to starve the University of North Carolina of needed funds. Just in the past 10 years, General Fund authorizations for the UNC system grew by 15 percent after adjusting for inflation and enrollment growth. The universities didn’t just hold their own, or barely keep up with burgeoning student populations. They experienced a significant increase in taxpayer subsidy, despite the fact that funding has been relatively flat over the past two years and took a dip in the early 1990s.

I was shocked to learn that the state’s community college system, though receiving much less of a subsidy ($3,600 per full-time-equivalent student) than the UNC system does (an average of $10,500 per student), nevertheless experienced an even-larger increase of 21 percent in state funding from 1991-92 to 2001-02, after adjusting for inflation and enrollment growth.

Finally, North Carolina is a relatively generous funder of public colleges. The state taxes and spends about 2.1 percent of our income for this purpose, compared to the national average of 1.7 percent and the regional average of 1.8 percent.

So the question is: what does this massive “investment” in public higher education do for the taxpayers? The answer may be, surprisingly, not very much. It turns out that North Carolina’s attainment rate for college – the percentage of adults with at least a four-year degree – has grown little in the past decade, particularly as a share of the national average. And much of the growth that has occurred was probably due to migration of college-educated people to our state, which can’t be directly tied to state spending on colleges (Florida and Virginia, for example, spent a lot less than we do but experienced similar trends).

Just some food for thought, from this UNC graduate (thanks for all of you taxpayers’ thoughtful five-digit investment in my education, by the way).