Two years ago, the New York Times editorial board told the nation that the state of North Carolina was burning on every key policy and social issue that had come to represent progressive southern politics, thanks to the political shift of the governor's office and the state congress to GOP control.
And one of the first things we knew that conservative politicians would try to claim would be the state's public HBCUs - the last and largest publicly subsidized government agencies you'll find anywhere that were created for black folks, and today are generally managed by black folks and predominantly serving black folks.
You knew the idea was coming last March when one legislator asked, "how many HBCUs do we really need?" You knew the plan had been developed when almost a year earlier, a state budget proposal which didn't include Elizabeth City State was introduced and defeated, and the chancellor resigned shortly in December 2015.
And you know the plan is in action when legislators float documents to the media on the "Access to Affordable Education Act," a plan that aims to lower tuition at public institutions, raises admissions standards, realigns academic missions and programs, and potentially changes the name of some campuses. The law would work in tandem with the state's Guaranteed Admission Program, which directs high school graduates who finish on the margins of most college admission requirements to community colleges and the potential of transfer into a four-year institution.
Of the five public HBCUs which could be affected if the legislation is introduced and passed next month, North Carolina A&T and North Carolina Central seem to be outside of the plan's scope, while Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State would face the most dramatic changes.
Essentially, the new rules set up HBCUs to become more affordable, but harder to get into, less likely to have an attractive set of degree programs, and less identifiable with their HBCU tradition. And when you consider that these schools will be competing harder with community colleges just to get students enrolled, even when other states are dealing with the harsh realities of the magic 2+2 transfer plan, there is reason to believe that, inevitably, one or some of these schools will close or be merged as part of a cost-saving measure to streamline higher education in the state.
Fayetteville State is at the center of the controversy surrounding this plan, because it is mentioned in the original News & Observer story as a school which may be among the first to chance its name to UNC-Fayetteville. Lawmakers should be ashamed for believing that the name change game would be one that would so easily distract NC citizens from the real plan to seize and marginalize black colleges.
We can wrestle any day about the merits of changing the names of East Carolina, Western Carolina and others along with Fayetteville State. But everyday, that discussion is a distraction from the legislative effort to cripple HBCU culture and value in the state. Obviously, politicos would be more than happy to keep the name Fayetteville State, and change the school's program offerings and admission criteria while we're looking the other way.
But even at the heart of that plan is a terrible error in financial and industrial judgement. For all of the bad press HBCUs receive, North Carolina is an example of how public colleges, including HBCUs, help to shape the financial profile of a state. In its latest economic impact study, UNC officials report that public universities across the state generated $28 billion in added state income in 2012-13, and saved taxpayers more than $13 billion in reduced costs for public safety, public health and unemployment benefits.
Given that North Carolina is in the bottom half of the nation's healthiest states, and that African Americans face disparate and desperate statistics related to crime and incarceration, obesity and preventable diseases and unemployment, is it really smart to take out the schools which admit the students who, statistically and without higher education, would be the likeliest to enter these categories of social vulnerability and economic dependence?
And even if you do think a majority of our students would be better off at community college, and data suggests they won't, would you rather wind up being forced to invest more in community colleges to accommodate the student enrollment rush over established, four-year HBCUs? Over something as silly as race?
In the end, investing more money into HBCUs would be less expensive than the costs that will be necessary to merge schools, and not to mention the negative press and the possibility of being sued for discrimination by students and alumni. Forget that the state's five HBCUs are among the best small colleges in the nation in engineering, social work, law and criminal justice, health care and homeland security; if efficiency is really the core value, then draining budgets, morale and legal defense coffers probably isn't your best bet.
Tread lightly, Carolina; there is more to messing with HBCUs than meets the eye or the wallet.