Does North Carolina sufficiently support its public universities?

A new report from the Center for American Progress alleges that the “Great Recession” that began in 2008 devastated public university investments nationwide. Specifically, it says that over a five-year period, tuition has skyrocketed, states have withdrawn public investment, and low-income families have been pushed out of higher education.

Maybe so. But how does the UNC system stack up against public universities around the country in terms of spending and student success?

While many observers believe that college is too expensive, compared to the rest of the country, the sixteen colleges of the UNC system are well funded and affordable for students. The system also received smaller cuts in state appropriations than did most other states.

Let’s look at some particulars from the report and IPEDS (the Department of Education’s higher education database):

Allegation #1: College costs have skyrocketed

The total price for in-state students living on campus in 2013-14 at the average UNC institution was $18,820. The average for all U.S. public universities was $21,473. And North Carolina’s public universities cost less than our neighbors to the North and South. The average price in Virginia was $24,135 this year. In South Carolina it was $24,073.

From 2007-08 to 2011-12, in-state undergraduate tuition and fees at the average UNC institution increased $1,222. Nationally, tuition and fees at public universities increased $1,600 on average.

Allegation #2: States have withdrawn public investment from universities

One of the reasons for UNC’s relative affordability is that the North Carolina General Assembly has been generous to its universities. According to IPEDS, state appropriations make up 43 percent of UNC’s core revenues. At the average American public university, state appropriations only make up 28 percent of revenues.

As a result, tuition represents a smaller percentage of the total revenues at the UNC schools—22 percent. Nationally, tuition accounts for 30 percent.

The Center for American Progress’ report, which is based on IPEDS figures, shows that North Carolina’s recession-fueled cuts to state spending on higher education have been moderate in comparison to the rest of the country.

Measured as a percent of revenue, North Carolina’s cuts were the 15th smallest in the nation—just $677 from 2007 to 2012. North Carolina’s tuition increase was the 21st smallest in the country.

North Carolina outperformed its neighboring states on every financial measure.

And there’s evidence that campuses allocated the “management flexibility” cuts to the UNC system in a productive way. (Management flexibility cuts are cuts in appropriations that the university can allocate as it wishes.) Across the system, 535 vacant positions were eliminated in 2012-13, which effectively eliminated what some view as slush funds (funds that come from keeping posts vacant but still receiving appropriations). And schools in the UNC system spend a larger percentage of their budgets on instruction (and less on support services) now than they did at the beginning of the recession.

Allegation #3: Cuts have hurt low-income students hardest

It’s true that net college costs (i.e. the total cost of college minus any grants or scholarships) during the recession rose most, as a percentage, for students with income less than $30,000 per year, even here in North Carolina.

But North Carolina’s public universities remain relatively affordable. The average UNC system student with income less than $30,000 paid just $6,511 in net costs in 2011-12. By contrast, students with family income greater than $110,000 paid more than double that amount—$15,634. The $6,511 figure is not all that different from the cost of living at home without attending school.

At the average U.S. public institution, net costs are much higher—$9,300 for students from families making $30,000 or less and $16,920 for students from families making $110,000 or more.

In North Carolina, the difference in net costs between poor and wealthy students is much greater than it is nationally, both because North Carolina tuition is low and because the UNC Needs Based Grant, North Carolina’s biggest state aid program, provides generous help to low-income students.

Success, not just access

But ultimately, student access to universities is only half the picture. In order to make real comparisons, we need to know whether students succeed once admitted to college. It’s important to know whether cuts have hurt UNC students’ success rates, and how UNC schools compare nationally.

The 6-year graduation rate for the UNC system is 59 percent, well above the average graduation rate for American public universities as a whole—53 percent. UNC’s better showing can’t be explained by higher spending because UNC schools spend less per student than the average public institution once all sources of revenue are included—$22,578 compared to $26,702.

What might be making the difference is that UNC schools are devoting a larger portion of that spending to instruction and institutional support than do other schools. (See pie charts.) In fact, after the university experienced cuts during the recession, that portion went up, suggesting that the cost-cutting was greater among administration than faculty.

The cuts don’t seem to have impacted student performance. Graduation rates are up at almost all UNC schools since 2007-08. And this is even as total education-and-related spending per degree has decreased.

Bottom line: ignore the national headlines. The sky (at least here in North Carolina) isn’t falling. Even after the recession, the UNC system remains well-funded and affordable for students.

(Editor’s note: IPEDS is the source of the pie chart information.)

Pie chart 1

Pie Chart 2