North Carolina's Lessons for Michigan

(Editor's note: This is a guest post by Jay Schalin, a senior writer with the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in North Carolina, a nonprofit institute dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the nation.)

In his recent column, Nolan Finley argues that Michigan can turn around by emulating North Carolina. "The states that have passed us on the prosperity list get it. North Carolina, for example, has sacrificed to pour more money into its colleges and universities," he writes.

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North Carolina has traditionally supported its colleges well, since long before the 1960s. For awhile, North Carolina's economy was a lot like that of Mississippi or Arkansas: the bottom of the barrel. Some occurrences in the late 1950s and 60s made the entire South attractive to Yankees — air conditioning became common, and the interstate made the South convenient to travel to.

A lot of the state is still poverty-stricken. There is a great deal of prosperity in three areas: Fayetteville, Charlotte and the Triangle. Fayetteville is all military spending. Charlotte is a banking center, as North Carolina's banking regulations enabled local firms to grow and compete in other states. 

The Triangle is the place in the country all the "education drives the economy" advocates, such as Finley, point to. The Research Triangle Park is a private nonprofit that has little to do with the universities. It was the brainchild of a real estate executive. The universities were a selling point, but not a central one, to the Park's development. Had the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke been equally good schools, but scattered around the rest of the state instead of concentrated along a 30-mile stretch of I-40, they would not have been a selling point. Duke, of course, is a private institution, as well, which is something that Michigan lacks in its University Research Corridor.  Most of the Triangle's development comes from outside companies moving branches here: IBM, GlaxoSmithKline, etc.

But it's not university appropriations that are the main selling point for these companies: Cheap land, lack of congestion, right-to-work laws and pleasant climate (with air conditioning) had as much to do with it as the universities. The Triangle does not have a better education infrastructure than Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, for example, but Pennsylvania's economy is similar in many ways to Michigan's. And while many local graduates and professors do indeed work at the Triangle, you don't hear the Southern accent that much around here, since there are so many highly educated migrants from up North.  

We are also blessed with the coast and the mountains, which causes many retirees to spend their pensions from Michigan and Pennsylvania (my home state) down here.

As far as tuition goes, it has been historically low. But this year, they jacked it up over 20 percent, as the Legislature could only give the UNC system a tiny raise in appropriations. The massive 40-year expansion in the university system is now becoming an albatross around the state's neck. We have been subsidizing, at a great cost, many students who lack either the interest or the aptitude to benefit much from a four-year college education. The money to fund a six-year entitlement program of "beer-and-circus" for all young people is no longer there.

North Carolina earned its recent prosperity through hard work, luck and the vision of its entrepreneurs. The university system was not the prime mover, but played a supporting role instead. Now, the state's unsustainably hefty university appropriations threaten its future success.