North Carolina colleges face plenty of challenges, from COVID recovery to a fast-changing economy. But when you poll students and families, one issue stands head and shoulders above the rest: cost.
For as long as I’ve been in public life, the narrative about higher education has been one of the relentless increases in price. Tales of runaway tuition costs and crushing student debt led to a generation of students who are more skeptical about the value of college, more concerned about the risks of pursuing opportunity beyond high school. That has real consequences for our economy. Higher costs slow the rate of college attainment, leading to slower job growth and a greater divide between those with a degree and those without.
If we want more of our citizens to earn a degree and enjoy the economic opportunity that comes with it, we must decrease the burden on families and keep student debt low. That’s exactly what we’ve done over the past few years at North Carolina’s public universities, and it’s paying off.
Tuition has been flat for five years running, breaking a decades-long trend of ever-rising prices. And NC Promise, backed by an extraordinary investment from state lawmakers, dropped tuition at three of our campuses to just $500 per semester. That means that in the spring of 2022, we’ll see hundreds of newly minted North Carolina graduates who paid just $4,000 in tuition for a world-class education. System-wide, we’re on track for a reduction in student debt even as we continue to improve already strong graduation rates. According to data from the College Board, we were one of just a handful of states to reduce the average cost of in-state tuition over the last five years, strengthening our status as one of the most affordable places in the country to go to college.
That kind of progress doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a sharp focus on containing costs, finding ways to operate more efficiently and generate greater value for the people we serve. We’ve enacted sensible, effective reforms that hold me and our chancellors accountable for improving graduation rates, reducing debt, and serving more low-income and first-generation North Carolinians. We’ve passed new policies to focus on new degree programs, making sure they deliver a clear benefit to students and taxpayers. And we’re pursuing major reforms to the state’s financial aid program, making it easier to understand and encouraging more students to consider that there are multiple paths to success after high school.
We still have plenty of work to do. Student fees and living costs remain a major concern, and we are making the transfer from community college an easier and more reliable option for earning an affordable degree. And even with recent improvements in five-year graduation rates — now at a system-wide high of 71% — we still have way too many students taking more than four years to earn a degree. Our universities need to do better in guiding every student towards finishing in eight semesters or fewer.
None of this is revolutionary, and that’s the point. Our universities are extraordinarily innovative in their research and scholarship, in the ideas and inventions they pursue and the possibilities they open up for students. But when it comes to running the place, what we need isn’t innovation so much as discipline. Modest, focused budgets. Metrics that hold us all accountable for outcomes rather than inputs. We may teach poetry, but we’re going to govern in prose — prose, and spreadsheets.
Our lawmakers and the general public rightly expect that kind of accountability. It’s what gives them the confidence to maintain public investment in higher education, which in turn helps lower the cost to students and keep the university within reach for all North Carolinians. It’s a virtuous cycle, one I’m determined to preserve and enhance.
I grew up as a deep believer in our university system, awed by a state that would invest so much in a kid from Horse Shoe, North Carolina. But I know that we can only remain “the people’s university” if the people can afford it.
Peter Hans is president of the University of North Carolina System.