RALEIGH (December 29, 2022) – 2022 has been an anxious year for North Carolina.
As the nation stumbled out of a pandemic, inflation spiked, interest rates rose, shortages in the state’s teaching workforce grew larger and battles over budgets – both in the legislature and in court – grew more sharply partisan. And leadership in North Carolina’s higher education systems continued to shuffle, adding to the uncertainty.
Several themes emerge through the year:
The state budget for 2022-23 reached nowhere near the rate of inflation with its raises for state employees – despite a budget surplus of $6.5 billion.
As inflation raged at 8.6%, K-12 teachers received an average raise of 4.2% and other state employees an average raise of 3.5%. That’s effectively a pay cut that did little to repair the state’s dwindling teacher pipeline.
Partly as a result, North Carolina’s K-12 public schools opened this fall with 4,400 teacher vacancies.
If there’s a single takeaway from the state’s meager compensation for educators at every level, it’s that the free market is indeed working – and we need to pay the folks who teach our kids.
The budget did make smart investments to expand engineering education at NC State, NC A&T and UNC Charlotte. At NC State alone, it will lead to a 40% increase in engineering enrollment – 4,000 more engineering students. Legislators also added Fayetteville State University to the initial three institutions in NC Promise, which offers tuition of $500 a semester to in-state students.
After 28 years of litigation over state funding for public schools and an appeal from more than 50 of the state’s business leaders, in November the NC Supreme Court ordered state officials to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars to assure North Carolina students have access to a sound basic education.
“When other branches indefinitely abdicate this constitutional obligation, the judiciary must fill the void,” Associate Justice Robin Hudson wrote in the opinion.
A state budget analyst determined last week that the latest budget still falls $677.8 million short of what’s required under the case known as Leandro.1
Though campus chancellors complained about inflationary pressures and inability to retain employees after six years of flat tuition, UNC System President Peter Hans declared there will be no in-state tuition increase at UNC System schools for 2023-24.
Our series about North Carolina’s community colleges revealed rich offerings tailored to local economies and employers. A new study found that the state’s community colleges contribute $19 billion to the North Carolina economy and support 300,000 jobs.
With an influx of new employers like Google, Apple, VinFast, Wolfspeed, Toyota and a burgeoning biotech industry, community colleges are expected to provide much of the training for workers. They already provide training for truck drivers who are essential to the supply chains we once took for granted.
Community colleges also provide critical training for workers in health fields, ranging from central sterile processing at Davidson-Davie Community College to an array of 20 health professions at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte.
And they provide a seamless, affordable pathway to four-year degrees at state universities – particularly in modest-paying professions like teaching. Half the Goodnight Scholars at NC State University, for example, are community-college graduates.
Wraparound services from child care to car repairs are essential, though, for many community-college students. Forsyth Tech’s services even include access to free legal advice in non-criminal cases, and the college’s food pantries even offer pet food.
We found that in some instances, local business leaders – such as Eddie Smith of Grady-White Boats in Greenville, the family of Leonard Herring in Wilkesboro and Bank of America in Charlotte – provide both leadership and millions of dollars for college programs.
At Wilkes Community College, the efforts of Herring’s and other Lowe’s executives’ families helped raise the college’s completion rate from 25% to 45% in just four astounding years.
And a new effort called NC Tech Paths helps connect recent Wilkes graduates with jobs in the digital economy while encouraging them to stay in Wilkes, Alleghany and Ashe counties. Its slogan: “Live. Train. Remain.”
But even though Republicans in neighboring Tennessee pioneered free community-college tuition, such a program remains beyond the grasp of the NC General Assembly.
Gov. Roy Cooper has advocated for free community college and used federal pandemic relief funds to provide grants to make community college virtually free to recent high school graduates – an opportunity celebrated by students. But those federal dollars will expire at the end of 2023.
And even though community colleges play a critical role in North Carolina’s economy, the state’s community-college instructors are still paid less than K-12 teachers, ranking 41st in the country for faculty salaries. Community college instructors in North Carolina make less than their colleagues in Alabama, South Carolina, and yes – even Mississippi.
The State Board of Community Colleges presented a plan to raise faculty and staff salaries 8% over three years, and the legislature granted raises of 3.5% this year.
The UNC Board of Governors has been plagued for several years by leadership turnover, micromanagement and overt political influence.
This year’s state budget authorizes $180 million, for example, to move the UNC System offices from Chapel Hill into a new “Education Complex” across the street from the Legislative Building in Raleigh.2
Though legislative leaders cite potential efficiencies, the measure is seen by many as a move to tighten legislative control and continue politicizing the university. And the price tag raises real questions about efficiencies.
The entire 24-member Board of Governors is appointed by the General Assembly, and the Board of Trustees at each of the System’s 17 campuses are appointed by legislators and the Board of Governors.
So in November, Gov. Cooper appointed a bipartisan commission led by former UNC System Presidents Tom Ross and Margaret Spellings to study governance of the UNC System.
Governing boards of the state’s public universities should reflect the state’s diversity of race, gender, geography and political thought, Cooper told the panel, but the boards currently don’t come close to that.
North Carolina saw an impressive series of job announcements in 2022: Toyota, Google, Apple, VinFast, Wolfspeed and Boom Supersonic will all set up new operations in the state – with most citing the quality of the state’s workforce.
Those facilities will indeed require a well-trained workforce. Ten regional community colleges plan to collaborate to supply the 7,500 workers Vietnamese electric-vehicle maker VinFast plans to hire at its plant in Chatham County.
And leadership continued to shuffle across NC higher education.
In July, Thomas Stith III resigned as President of the NC Community College System, so that the system will have had seven presidents or interim presidents since 2015.
The 2020 elections also saw Republicans increase their majorities in the General Assembly and seize control of the NC Supreme Court. The court shifted from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 Republican majority.
In the legislature, Republicans won the 30 out of 50 seats in the Senate they need to override a veto from Democratic Gov. Cooper. And they fell one vote shy of a veto-proof majority in the state House, winning 71 of that chamber’s 120 seats.