What price higher education?

These days, every state has a university system, though that wasn’t always the case. New York, for example, didn’t establish the SUNY system until after World War II — which doesn’t seem to have impeded that state’s growth and prosperity.

But the different systems vary widely in the extent to which they depend on government appropriations for funding. Some rely heavily on state moneys; others draw more from voluntary support.

To find out where North Carolina stands, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy analyzed the financial data for each state listed in the 2004 Almanac Issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The analysis divided state government’s higher-education appropriations into the total spending on the state’s higher-education system, including both two- and four-year institutions.

In North Carolina, more than 48 percent of all the money spent by public colleges and universities came from the state. That places us sixth-highest in the nation, just behind Alaska (at 50.2 percent) and ahead of Connecticut (46.3 percent). This confirms the common perception that North Carolina runs one of the most heavily subsidized higher-education systems in the country.

Some other states have managed to significantly reduce their dependence on taxes to fund their higher-education systems. In Virginia and South Carolina, for example, government funding accounts for just 30 percent of expenditures; in Michigan, the figure is 26 percent. Colorado and Oregon both hover around 22 percent. Strangely enough, the nation’s least government-dependent higher-education system is Vermont’s, at 18 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, Nevada tops the list at 66 percent.

But is taxpayer support for state universities a good thing or a bad thing? Here in North Carolina, individuals who want to make the high proportion of government funding for our system seem like a virtue are fond of saying that ours is “the people’s university.” As they see it, money that’s been taken from taxpayers is “pure,” whereas money from tuition charges constitutes “an unfair burden” and money from voluntary donors is “corrupting.”

But to me, it seems much fairer to place the primary cost burden on students — the people who stand to benefit most directly from their studies — rather than on other state residents, many of whom receive, at best, a tenuous and indirect benefit from the state’s higher-education system. And in many instances, these people are also much less prosperous than the families who enroll their kids at Chapel Hill, State, ECU et al.

As for outside voluntary support, there’s no reason to think that even the biggest individual donor could assume such importance that the university would become a subsidiary thereof, with no more autonomy than, say, Buick has from General Motors. The most obvious reason why not is that any university that allowed itself to become a puppet of one donor would put at risk its relationships with many others.

And fairness aside, the primary virtue I see in voluntary funding for state-university systems is that it’s far easier for an individual supporter — whether it’s a student, an alumnus, a business or a charitable foundation — to say “no more” and stop providing support if the university should act in unacceptable ways than it is for taxpayers to get politicians to reduce university appropriations. A UNC alumnus upset over, say, summer-reading choices or curriculum changes can simply decide not to write a check. That is infinitely easier than getting in touch with one’s representatives in the General Assembly and trying to persuade them that the UNC budget should be cut.

It’s time we got away from the socialist model of higher education, in which government is the “single payer” (to borrow terminology that medical-care socialists find appealing). I would argue, in fact, that you’re closer to having a true “people’s university” when individuals can choose to support it directly if they think its benefits justify the money, than you are when elected officials decide how much tax money to allocate.

Let us hope the next president of the UNC system chooses to move us in that direction.

[George C. Leef is executive director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. He writes frequently on education topics for the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Beat.]

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