Dec. 7, 2011 10:37

Dangerous crosscurrents

Just in time for the newest unemployment figures — the country is down, but we’re up to 9.7 percent in North Carolina, compared to 9.4 percent this time last year — the price of everything is going up, including one of the driving forces in our overall employment picture.

Though the much-discussed, menacing paradigm of economic inequality looms, and it gets harder and harder to break through with each passing generation, upward mobility is still possible in this country. The recipe for American success remains the same: Hard work. Frugality. Education. But one by one, the legs of the stool grow weaker as the economy falters. A chronic lack of jobs makes hard work unavailable to many who are eager to do it. Low incomes and easy credit negate frugality. An education, however, is a permanent thing. Valuable, too — though the unemployment just dropped below 9 percent for the first time since 2009, for those with college degrees the rate is about half, and they can expect to earn more money than those without.

With demand growing, the squeeze comes from the supply side, and state schools, once bastions of affordable higher education, are not immune to market forces.

North Carolina more or less created the American public university in 1789, and the state has consistently valued accessibility to higher education for all its people.

That is starting to change. Every school in the UNC System is mulling over tuition increases as high as 10 percent — the UNCG Board of Trustees met last week to discuss incremental tuition hikes over the next three years.

They need the money, they say, to restore programs and faculty gutted by reduced funding. They need the money, they say, to maintain prestige among American public universities and to honor the implied contract for excellence it holds with its students.

Valid arguments, but they ignore the new reality. North Carolina no longer values a college education, as evidenced by the people we elected to represent us in Raleigh, many of whom ran on the promise of reducing the state school system’s presence in the budget — a clear mandate for austerity in which the university system, apparently, chooses not to participate.

Passing costs on to the students allows the schools to avoid the sting of a deliberate attack; it also sets a dangerous precedent, one that some lawmakers will point to when arguing to further reduce funding to our colleges and universities.

It will add to the egregious pile of student loan debt accumulating among graduates in this country. And by making a college education that much more difficult to obtain, it will feed into the growing economic gap between those who have one and those who don’t.

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