Shortchanging public universities and colleges reduces access to higher education, hurts economy

RALEIGH (May 13, 2015) — Even as most states have begun to restore funding for higher education that was cut during the recession, North Carolina has continued to cut funding for public universities, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As a result, tuitions have risen dramatically and the quality of education here has suffered, which will make it harder for the state to attract businesses that rely on a well-educated workforce.

“Smart investments in public colleges and universities will help to strengthen North Carolina’s economy,” said Cedric Johnson of the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center. “Communities with highly educated residents attract employers who pay competitive wages. Their employees then spend money in their community, boosting the economy of the entire area. That’s what North Carolina needs as our economy continues to recover from the damaging Great Recession.”

Nationwide, states are spending 20 percent less per student on higher education than they did in 2008, after adjusting for inflation. With such deep cuts in higher education investment, colleges and universities have had to raise tuition, cut spending, or both. As a result, tuition at four-year public colleges has grown nationally by 29 percent since the 2007-08 school year.

For North Carolina, costly tax cuts in recent years have hindered the state’s ability to invest in what works, such as its well-regarded public university system. State funding for higher education has been cut by more than 20 percent since 2008 when adjusted for inflation, according to the new report. Meanwhile, the average tuition at a public, four-year college increased by 36 percent during this period.

“Too many students are taking on unsustainable levels of debt, and rapidly rising tuition creates a formidable barrier to economic opportunity for many students from low- and middle-income families,” said Johnson. “North Carolina needs to maintain its constitutional commitment to ensure post-secondary education is ‘free as far as practicable’ and that means funding these systems adequately.”

Lower funding also threatens the ability of public universities and community colleges to serve as intellectual centers in their communities, economic development engines and sources of research and development for private sector innovation.Retaining faculty members who are leaders in their fields has become a big challenge as other states successfully lure them away from North Carolina. Universities have reduced course offerings and support services for students to address state funding cuts and funding for need-based aid has not been increased in recent years.

To reverse these disturbing trends, North Carolina needs to recommit to making higher education a priority and reject more unaffordable tax cuts. A large and growing share of jobs will require college-educated workers, and the only way to make sure North Carolina students are prepared and the state’s economy can thrive is to keep higher education affordable and of high quality.

“A thriving economy of the future requires college-educated workers,” said Michael Mitchell, policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the report. “For the sake of its future prosperity, North Carolina should start reinvesting in its colleges and universities now.”

The report is available online here:

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT: Cedric Johnson,, 919.856.3192; Jeff Shaw,, 503.551.3615 (cell).