The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.
-Article IX, North Carolina Constitution
"I'm really concerned that what we're doing now is making price and the ability to pay the first standard that must be met by young people to go to college. That's not what built this state; that attitude did not make North Carolina great."
Former UNC President William Friday died early this morning at the age of 92. A flood of tributes naturally followed.
For those of you from outside NC, Friday was responsible for giving the state a world-class, affordable college system. This helped to make education more widely available, especially in a state with many poor and rural residents. A lot of us working class kids who ended up going to a good college for a price we can conceivably pay off in our lifetime owe him our thanks.
But among all the accolades, one thing that's being largely forgotten is that Friday spent the last decade of his life fighting hard against a major trend in higher education, including actions carried out by many of the same administrators currently singing his praises.
The ignoring of Friday's advice on this issue illuminates one of the main causes behind the increasing difficulty of accessing higher education: in his lifetime, low tuition went from sacrosanct to expendable.
A proud "low tuition man," Friday called the trend of institutions constantly ratcheting up their prices "dangerous." At my own school, Appalachian State, tuition began rising sharply around 2000. It was still a relative bargain during my time there, but the perpetually increasing cost did cause some real difficulties of the "having food and paying rent" variety.
As one of the architects of a better South, Friday saw widely-available knowledge as a way to overcome poverty and isolation. The belief in public education was one of the things the industrial nation-states got, on the whole, right: it's hard for us to imagine a time when even basic literacy was the province of the elite. But now that achievement is receding in places from the South to Europe, and student debt exceeds credit card debt.
So among all the deserved tributes, let's remember that a good portion of the people doing the talking ignored Friday's advice when it was most important, and continue to. Let's also hope there are more voices against those too shortsighted to pay for a functioning society.