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Time for North Carolina to offer free college education

by Jim Longworth

Two-hundred thirty-five years ago, patriot Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” a pamphlet which railed against monarchies and rallied us to a revolution. He also suggested other radical ideas such as a guaranteed minimum wage and free education for all. Paine was a corset-maker by trade, so he knew the importance of belt tightening. But he also knew that sometimes it is necessary to expand and expend for the public good. And while lawmakers heeded his advice in arming troops, they rejected his notions for arming future generations with an affordable education.

And that brings us to another patriot named Thomas who last week hinted that North Carolina is headed in the wrong direction when it comes to funding its public universities. These days, University of North Carolina System President Tom Ross is none too happy with the eroding appropriations being allocated by the General Assembly for so-called state supported colleges. For example, 20 years ago the state kicked in 81 percent of the highered budget for its 17 campuses. But by 2010, that contribution had fallen to 64 percent. This trend has caused college presidents to continually raise tuition rates, so much so that over the past decade, tuition at North Carolina universities has risen by 175 percent.

Robert Wright, a professor at Ohio State University who studies these matters, says that tuition increases nationwide have far outpaced inflation. And the late David Broder reported that between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and associated fees rose three times as fast as the average annual family income. In fact, today, the average cost of tuition, books, room, board and various fees is over $10,000 per year at public universities.

It is no wonder, then, that only 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in college (source: UNESCO) and that many of those already enrolled fear they may have to leave school due to rising costs. Atul Bhula, a grad student at Appalachian State University and representative to the ASU Board, told the Associated Press: “I’m afraid of this General Assembly moving tuition from a secondary source, to a primary source of revenue. The assembly needs to be reminded of its constitutional mandate.” The mandate to which Bhula refers is spelled out in the North Carolina Constitution, which requires that the state “provide affordable higher education.” Of course, the key word is “affordable.”

GOP Sen. Phil Berger seems to think that the state already complies with that mandate, telling the AP last week: “If you say that UNC Chapel Hill is a peer with Michigan… Texas… and Virginia, then I don’t see how you can… say we don’t have low tuition compared with the other schools. Students must [bear] some of the expense…. [I]f you get an education, that gives you career choices, so you should be able to incur some debt, and pay it back down the road.”

Berger’s lack of compassion and perspective is astounding. First of all, the recession has left a majority of college grads without career choices. Second, they are incurring more than just a little debt for the privilege of an education. According to DistanceEducation.org, today’s grads leave college with an average debt of $20,000.

Berger, like many other Republican lawmakers, fails to take the long view or a world view of this growing problem. Many other nations provide a free college education to their citizens.

Those include Sweden, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and Cuba. France and Ireland require only a minimal registration fee.

Meanwhile, Denmark, Finland and Norway take the perks a step further by giving each student a monthly stipend.

Here in the United States, the five service academies offer a version of free education, but graduates must repay the favor by signing up for a hitch in the military. Only a handful of colleges are tuition free, and that’s because it is part of their core mission. They include Cooper Union, Berea College and Olin College.

Our other 5,750 colleges and universities still think that the only way to offer higher education is with increasingly higher tuition.

Yes, budgets are tight, and state lawmakers are struggling to balance the books without incurring massive layoffs. But money spent on higher education now will only strengthen our economy later, and perhaps ensure that the leaders of tomorrow won’t get us into the kind of financial mess that the leaders of today can’t seem to get us out of. A free college education isn’t a revolutionary idea anymore. It’s just good “Common Sense.”

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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