ROBINSON: The COVID crisis is helping break the back of inflation in higher education

In a year plagued by disease, riots and massive government overreach, there might be one silver lining. The consumer price index for college tuition and fees fell .7% in August from the prior month. That’s the largest single-month decrease since September 1978. It may be the beginning of a trend as virtual learning has changed students’ — and parents’ — evaluation of the cost of a degree.

For far too long, tuition increases were as certain as death and taxes. The Official Data Foundation writes:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices for college tuition and fees were 1,412.17% higher in 2020 versus 1977. Between 1977 and 2020: College tuition experienced an average inflation rate of 6.52% per year. This rate of change indicates significant inflation. Compared to the overall inflation rate of 3.43% during this same period, inflation for college tuition was significantly higher.

The cost of college tuition and fees has grown faster than almost all other items, including the cost of medical care services, childcare and nursery school, and average wages. The only item that has grown faster is the cost of hospital services.

In North Carolina, things aren’t quite so bad — for students and parents, at least. Tuition at all 16 UNC system schools is significantly lower than comparable schools in other states. For example, tuition for in-state undergraduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill was $7,019 for the 2019-2020 academic year. At the University of Virginia, in-state undergraduates paid $17,798. Published 2017-2018 tuition and fees for undergraduates in the UNC System were nearly 16% less than the national average for public universities.

While UNC students save money compared to many others, that doesn’t mean the UNC system is cutting costs. Instead, others pick up the bill.

The cost of college tuition and fees has grown faster than almost all other items, including the cost of medical care services, childcare and nursery school, and average wages.

Part of the reason for North Carolina’s comparatively affordable tuition is the generous subsidy the UNC system receives from North Carolina taxpayers. In the most recent year for which data were available, the UNC system received 41% of its operational funding from state appropriations and just 23% from tuition and fees. Even UNC-Chapel Hill receives 21% of its operating revenues from state taxpayers (compared to only 7% at the University of Virginia). The North Carolina General Assembly sent $2.9 billion in taxpayer funding to the UNC system in 2018. North Carolina has the sixth-highest per-student state funding in the nation for university students.

Even so, students still feel the financial pain. North Carolina has seen considerable tuition growth. From 2001-2002 until 2017-2018, average tuition and fees in the UNC system more than doubled, even after accounting for inflation — increasing from $3,366 to $6,933. But beginning in 2018-2019, the UNC Board of Governors made it a top priority to keep tuition low. Tuition and fees have been frozen for in-state undergraduate students for four years in a row. The Board has instructed UNC’s constituent institutions to keep their tuition proposals for 2021-2022 flat as well.

For low tuition prices, North Carolina has set a national example. Current trends may mean that other states begin to follow suit. The coronavirus has sapped many families’ resources and their ability to pay high tuition costs. It has also exposed many more students to online learning. Although the execution of virtual learning hasn’t been very impressive, it has increased students’ awareness of the opportunities that online learning might offer in the future.

Online learning has also made many wonder why college education is so expensive. This, coupled with longstanding enrollment declines driven by demographic changes, could mean that tuition will finally begin to decline nationally — or at least plateau.

This would be a welcome change. Universities should tighten their belts to ensure it happens. Public higher education should bring better value to everyone — students, parents, taxpayers and society.