Budgetary Untouchable Now Touched
Whether last year or last decade, state leaders have responded to financial crises without sacrificing one sacred budget cow - public university enrollment growth.
But the untouchable has just been touched. The state House has passed a budget that would cap enrollment growth at the 16 University of North Carolina campuses at 1 percent during the 2011-12 school year.
The decision is sure to start a fight with the state Senate, the longtime protector of the university system.
Maybe the fight was inevitable. Legislators can't do anything to control enrollment increases in the public schools. School-age children in North Carolina have a constitutional right to a free, public school education.
With the economy in its current state, legislators also aren't keen on keeping people from adding job skills at the state's community colleges, where per-student costs are lower.
But legislators can cap university enrollment, keeping the number of students at UNC system schools at or near their current numbers. The savings can be pretty substantial. In the coming fiscal year, the state will spend nearly $60 million to allow the number of students enrolled to grow by about 3 percent.
University officials - including North Carolina's near-saint of higher education, President Emeritus Bill Friday - say the move is unprecedented and will have the effect of limiting access. They're right.
But when UNC Board of Governors Chair Hannah Gage says limiting access goes against everything the system stands for, she's not exactly right.
There are different ways to limit access. Jacking up tuition at rates faster than inflation, as the system schools have done over the past 15 years, is one way. Measuring yourself against private schools like Harvard, Stanford and Vanderbilt is another.
The effect is to curb the number of students who come from middle-class backgrounds.
The House's means of curbing access would presumably cause schools to raise the academic cut-off for admissions. Students who didn't make it in would do so because they didn't measure up academically, not socioeconomically.
Still, Friday is right. Curbing access to the universities by any means is hardly a good choice.
The enrollment increases at the state's public universities are essentially keeping pace with increases in the number of graduates coming out of North Carolina high schools. From 2003 to 2008, the annual number of high school graduates rose by 17.3 percent. During that same period, UNC system enrollment rose 17.8 percent.
From 2009 to 2018, the state Department of Public Instruction projects a 16-percent rise in the number of high school graduates.
But if an enrollment cap is unprecedented, so are the state's financial woes. House budget writers didn't have many good choices.
And wouldn't it be nice to see the folks over in Chapel Hill turn tuition into the same kind of sacred cow that enrollment increase money has become?
Native North Carolinians over the age of 40 can remember when that was actually the case.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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