SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Bowles and His Low-Tuition Campaign
There's no reason to doubt that Erskine Bowles, University of North Carolina system president, is, as he says, a "low-tuition man."
Bowles is a native North Carolinian who grew up in an era when the importance of low tuition to the state's economic and cultural development was apparent to anyone associated with UNC system schools.
When Bowles graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid-1960s, the state wore its commitment to low tuition like a badge of honor. It was a statement of enlightenment, a sign that this state, unlike others in the South, didn't just pay lip service to the notion that higher education was the path to a better life.
Over the past 30 years, and particularly during the past decade, that commitment has been eroding.
Perhaps the longstanding policy of keeping tuition as low as "practicable," as spelled out in the state constitution, is a victim of its own success. Certainly, as the state's metropolitan areas boomed with the rest of the New South economy, low tuition no longer became seen as tied to the state's very identity.
Bowles, though, understands the connection.
Still, he is only one person. And many of the people who lead the 16 UNC system campuses aren't so understanding.
After announcing a new draft plan designed to keep tuition somewhat in the ballpark with inflation, Bowles noted that he probably wasn't very popular among some chancellors.
"I don't think you'll find any of them (who) think that I'm a hero," he said.
Campus administrators aren't happy because they claim that they won't be able to keep quality faculty without significant tuition hikes. (That no comprehensive faculty retention studies are ever touted with their claims should make anyone suspicious.)
Bowles' proposal, which still must be approved by the UNC Board of Governors, calls for capping tuition increases at no more than 6.5 percent each year for the next four years.
The percentage represents the average tuition increase over the past 34 years, and is just slightly higher than a national indicator of recent tuition trends.
The increase would be below many of the double-digit tuition hikes seen over the past decade. For the period, it would be well below the 71 percent tuition rise between 1999 and 2004.
Bowles also calls the proposal a ceiling, not a floor, meaning that schools could request less than the maximum increase.
History, though, suggests the plan will likely act as a floor.
The spate of tuition hikes that began in 1999 was the result of another effort to respond to chancellors' concerns that tuition wasn't keeping pace with faculty salaries and other operational costs.
The year marked the first time that the UNC Board of Governors began requesting tuition hikes of the General Assembly, rather than making simple budget requests while leaving the issue of tax dollars-versus-tuition to legislators.
Now well down that narrow road, Bowles isn't going to be able to turn around suddenly, low tuition man or not.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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