Reading the N.C. Higher-Ed Budget

A bill currently under consideration would make several useful changes.

On April 3, the North Carolina House approved a proposed biennial budget, House Bill 259, which the Senate is now considering. The plan provides generous raises for state employees while keeping overall spending increases relatively modest. It also includes items of note for higher education, including several notable line-item appropriations.

The House budget spends considerably less, both overall and on higher-education items, than Governor Roy Cooper’s proposed budget, which was released on March 15. In a written statement, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger called Cooper’s budget draft “an irresponsible, unserious proposal from a lame-duck governor who wants future North Carolinians to pick up his tab.”

A comparison of the 2023-24 portion of Cooper’s budget, the House budget, and requests from the UNC System and N.C. Community College System are included in the table below.

UNC System

The UNC System’s priorities include a faculty retirement incentive program, enrollment funding changes, completion-assistance programs, cybersecurity, and distinguished professorship matching funds. Regarding the last of these, UNC-Chapel Hill maintains on its website that such funds allow the university “to retain experts in their field of study.” UNC is also requesting equity with other state agencies for faculty and staff salary increases.

Priorities also include several institution-specific requests. A few examples are funding to grow the primary-care workforce at East Carolina, agricultural research and extension funding at NC A&T, and new program development in the health sciences at UNC Pembroke.

If funded, the Faculty Retirement Incentive Program would save money in the long run.The House budget added a few of its own line items. A few examples include $2 million for the proposed School of Civic Life and Leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill, funding for eSports at UNCC and UNCG, and $10 million for “Engineering North Carolina’s Future” at NC State, a program designed to increase the number of engineering and computer-science graduates.

Jennifer Haygood presented a comparison of UNC-System requests and the N.C. House Budget last week at a meeting of the UNC Board of Governors Budget and Finance Committee. (The presentation is available here.) Haygood noted in her presentation that the House budget fully funds many of the UNC System’s priorities.

One item on UNC’s wish list is particularly worth watching. The Faculty Retirement Incentive Program (FRIP), if funded, would provide institutions with flexibility, improve university productivity, and save money in the long run. The UNC System has requested authorization, as well as $16.8 million in non-recurring funding, to launch the program. FRIP would give tenured faculty members who are at least 55 years old, and who have worked at a UNC institution for at least 10 years, one year’s salary to give up tenure and retire early.

The program would be especially helpful at UNC institutions that have lost significant student enrollment over the last several years (including ECU, UNCA, UNCG, UNCP, and WCU). Some of these institutions face significant budget shortfalls. And because of the rules regarding tenure, it’s extremely difficult to lay off professors unless an institution closes academic programs entirely. Offering early retirement incentives to professors in programs with shrinking demand would alleviate this tension and allow universities to reallocate funding in more efficient ways.

Shrinking university enrollment presents a unique challenge for our institutions. The Faculty Retirement Incentive Program would help universities to address the resultant deficits now instead of allowing the problem to continue into the future. It is a win-win for institutions, faculty, and future students.

N.C. Community College System

The N.C. Community College System’s wish list includes requests for faculty salary increases and increased funding for courses. The document explains,

Receiving this investment in students and employees will increase NC Community College student FTE funding to 66% of public university student FTE funding in comparable courses. This investment aligns NC Community College State funding with the average of the four surrounding states.

The request is based on a “strategic, three-year legislative initiative that outlines an investment proposition in community college students and employees” that was developed by the system in 2022.

Efficient use of resources, so that our universities provide value to both students and citizens, should be a primary goal of all university budgets. As the House and Senate work together to create a final budget, they should keep this goal in mind.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.