SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Tuition Rates Show Lack of Business Sense
The economy tanks. Workers get pink slips. Consumer confidence dives.
In response, a shop down the street decides to raise prices. Sure, some critics have questioned whether the quality of its products have been slipping in recent years. Who cares?
The managers say that they and their employees deserve raises. So what if those guys on the other block are being laid off? Not our problem.
In this economy, what do you think would happen to a business with such a dim view of its customers? Think many people would shop there?
Public universities, of course, aren't private sector businesses.
For starters, as conservatives like John Hood at the Locke Foundation love to point out, the customers -- students and their parents -- receive subsidies from taxpayers when they buy the product, higher education.
Tuition pays for about 40 percent of the cost of a student's education at University of North Carolina schools; taxpayers foot the other 60 percent.
Hood and his conservative brethren, though, have never come to grips with the fact that North Carolina's historic embrace of low tuition served as the underlying driver of the technology-based economy that took root in the state during the 1960s.
Low tuition, combined with taxpayer support of a substantial, solid public university system, attracted talented students in this state. Those talented students became a talented work force that made North Carolina attractive to the computer, communications and pharmaceutical industries that located here over the last four decades.
But during the last decade, our public universities also haven't been very businesslike in how they've treated their customers. Tuition hikes have far outstripped inflation, culminating with an increase three years ago that averaged 12 percent for the 16 universities in the system.
Current UNC system president Erskine Bowles responded to complaints by implementing a system that would ensure that in-state undergraduate tuition could rise no more than 6.5 percent in any year. Of course, the last time inflation reached 6.5 percent, Jimmy Carter was president.
Still, during the first year that the plan was in place, tuition hikes averaged just 1.2 percent. (News coverage continues to assert that UNC-Chapel Hill students saw no increase; tell that to out-of-state students, who paid $1,250 more.)
Ah, but it's a new year.
And UNC-Chapel Hill trustees are backing a 6.5 percent, or $240, tuition hike. Other schools are considering similar increases.
So much for new UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorpe's having any real appreciation for the historical importance of low tuition in his native state. Got to pay for that $900,000 renovation of your new home, after all.
But Bowles and the UNC Board of Governors don't have to accept the recommendations from school trustees and administrators.
Perhaps they'll recognize that out in the real world people are hurting, that the crowd in the ivory towers could survive without a raise, and they should be happy to be gainfully employed.
Stranger things have happened.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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