Up front: Time to pay up

 In May 2016, Up front

Higher education has always distinguished North Carolina from other states. The University of North Carolina System is highly regarded across the nation and around the globe — it has set this state apart. We need to nurture it, or watch it wither.

I agree with my friend Fred Eshelman, a pharmaceutical executive in Wilmington and a former UNC System board member. “It’s time to stop the bleeding,” he said when leaving the board. “You can say whatever you want to about the university system, [that] there’s waste and you don’t like their politics. It doesn’t change the fact that, in my view, it’s the biggest economic engine we have in this state.”

We are one of three states required constitutionally to provide children with a college education for as close to free as possible. Yet this system that has helped build our state is at risk: Over five years, starting in 2007-08, state support per student fell by $2,516, while tuition and fees went up by an average of $699.

In March, North Carolina voters reaffirmed their support for higher education with a resounding vote to invest $1.3 billion in capital spending at universities and community colleges across the state.

Now we need to invest in human capital as well. University faculty have seen one raise from the legislature in seven years. From 2012-14, 76% of faculty members at public universities who received offers from other institutions accepted the bids. Of the instructors who left, 93 took a total of $91 million in grant money. This has sapped talent at our public universities needed to educate our children and grandchildren.

The 50th percentile is hardly an ambitious goal, but 11 of our 16 public universities now fall below the median average salary for faculty when compared with their peer institutions. It would take an increase of roughly 6% to raise faculty pay to the 50th percentile at UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State University.

Public universities play a vital role in preparing and providing teachers for our K-12 public schools as well.  Yet over the past five years, we’ve seen enrollment in our university schools of education plunge 30%. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why: Teacher pay in North Carolina ranks 42nd in the nation. We need to reward the folks who teach our kids at every level.

Three years ago, we formed a nonpartisan organization called Higher Education Works to educate North Carolinians about the value of public higher education and compel them to ask their legislators to support it. We encourage you to pay attention to what’s happening to our public universities and community colleges.

Paul Fulton of Winston-Salem is the former president of Sara Lee Corp. and a former member of the UNC Board of Governors.

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