Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, November 17, 2014 8:38 am

UNC System tuition: “A failure of liberal thought” … and much more than that


Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute writes:

“There was a quiet revolution in the University of North Carolina higher education system in August, one that shows an important limit of current liberal thought. … The UNC System Board of Governors voted unanimously to cap the amount of tuition that may be used for financial aid for need-based students at no more than 15 percent. With tuition going up rapidly at public universities as the result of public disinvestment, administrators have recently begun using general tuition to supplement their ability to provide aid. This cross-subsidization has been heralded as a solution to the problem of high college costs. Sticker price is high, but the net price for poorer students will be low.

“This system works as long as there is sufficient middle-class buy-in, but it’s now capped at UNC. As a board member told the local press, the burden of providing need-based aid “has become unfairly apportioned to working North Carolinians,” and this new policy helps prevent that. …

“The problem for liberals isn’t just that there’s no way for them to win this argument with middle-class wages stagnating, though that is a problem. The far bigger issue for liberals is that this is a false choice, a real class antagonism that has been created entirely by the process of state disinvestment, privatization, cost-shifting of tuitions away from general revenues to individual, and the subsequent explosion in student debt. As long as liberals continue to play this game, they’ll be undermining their chances.”

I get that it’s Konczal’s job to write about the strengths and limits of liberal thought, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we focus only on the thought, we overlook the real-world consequences, which are: In a state in which the constitution requires UNC System tuition to be as nearly free as is practicable, we’re making it harder and harder for the state’s citizens to get a university education just so that we can keep the tax burden on the wealthy low.

That’s both immoral and, from a purely practical standpoint, very shortsighted. For 220 years, UNC has been the greatest economic driver North Carolina has. The education the system has provided has immeasurably enriched every sector of the state’s economy — agriculture, industry, medicine, tourism, you name it. The shortest way out of the problem of stagnating wages that Konczal describes is to invest in human capital. When we make it harder for the state’s citizens to get a university education, we are, economically speaking, cutting our own throats. That’s not just wrong, it’s asinine.

Unfortunately for the state, however, the GOP controls state government and the UNC System board, meaning that asininity, shortsightedness and greed are just the currency of the culture.

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