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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

General Assembly, look under every cushion before abandoning teacher raises

Posted By on Tue, Apr 22, 2014 at 9:00 AM

As the state tries to figure out how to give teachers raises, one pot of money often gets overlooked: the $82 million or so that N.C. grants to private colleges to help in-state students pay tuition. It hasn't been on the radar - much less on the table - as a potential source of teacher pay. It should be.

The N.C. Legislative Tuition Grant program began in 1975, when baby boomers headed to college, to provide tuition grants to N.C. undergraduates attending approved private state institutions. That money benefits Queens University, Davidson College, Johnson C. Smith University and Johnson and Wales University, among other schools. The school that has benefited the most from the tuition grant in recent years? Campbell University. A school that benefits that you might not have heard of? University of Mount Olive.

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When it began, the Tuition Grant program likely provided some relief to the state's over-crowded public university system. Now, demographics and funding of public institutions has changed. The 2008 recession squeezed budgets for public K-12 education and the university system, and they haven't fully recovered.

The N.C. State Education Assistance Authority sets eligibility for the grants, but the General Assembly tinkered with the program in 2011, labeling them "need-based." Before the change, in 2010 and 2011, 36,091 N.C. students each received an annual maximum approved grant of $1,850 in the Legislative Tuition Grant program. After the change, in 2012 and 2013, 25,627 students received grants averaging $3,187, according to the Education Assistance Authority. More money for fewer students.

The astronomical sticker price on private-college tuition skews the concept of "need-based." When a student faces a tuition sticker price of $45,000 per year, large percentages of families can qualify for "need-based" scholarships, from the schools, from outside private scholarships and from the legislative tuition grant program funded by taxpayers.

The State Education Assistance Authority sets criteria based on many factors, including the availability of funding from the General Assembly. Students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to determine "estimated family contribution" each year, and loans and grants fill the gap. The higher the private-school sticker price, the higher the need.

So it's possible for a student whose family could easily afford public-college tuition in North Carolina - out of pocket alone, without subsidies or loans - to qualify for a "need-based" grant at a private N.C. college. In other words, need-based doesn't mean poor or even low-income. It means a gap exists between the retail sticker price on tuition versus the family's estimated contribution. The higher the tuition, the more likely a gap will exist. Elite private schools like Yale provide need-based grants for families with income of $225,000 or more per year, according to CNN, and N.C. private schools likely don't differ from that kind of formula. (The recent numbers from the State Education Assistance Authority support that theory - fewer students receiving larger grants.)

The N.C. constitution says the state must fund "a general and uniform system of free public schools" and "equal opportunities shall be provided for all students." We must take a closer look at that pot of $82 million in state funding when assessing how to pay for public education in North Carolina.

Defenders and lobbyists for private schools contend that the grants are a deal for the state; in-state students get college educations for the price of a grant smaller than the total cost of educating that same student at a public university in North Carolina, they say. And certainly, in some cases, private colleges offer unique programs that help fulfill state needs, like the long-standing nursing program at Queens University in Charlotte, and healthy private colleges like Davidson, Queens and Johnson and Wales have provided obvious benefits to communities like ours. An across-the-blanket rejection of state funding of private college tuition in North Carolina would be an overreaction.

But taxpayers have to balance the benefits against the opportunity costs of not spending that money to pay public K-12 teachers what they deserve. I realize $82 million seems like a drop in the bucket when one estimate says it would take $400 million to put teacher pay back to a pre-recession pace. But it's a start and certainly better than giving up.

The tinkers in 2011 from the General Assembly in the grant program do not require funding for the grants every year. They even allow a fund to build up in years when the full allocation isn't used. Changing the state budget to divert some of that grant money to help give raises to K-12 public school teachers would be completely legal under existing law, and in keeping with the state constitution.

Andria Krewson is a long-time journalist in Charlotte. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Georgia and will someday complete her master's in digital communications at the University of North Carolina.

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