More than ever, we need to support N.C. higher ed

Coach Dean Smith was my college coach, and a hero of mine and many others. His recent death brought to mind his words, “You should never be proud of doing the right thing. Just do the right thing.”

For years – in fact, generations – North Carolina has quietly done the right thing by supporting a network of universities and community colleges that prepare our state’s workforce and try to address our most daunting challenges.

My entire family and I have benefited from it. You’ve benefited from it. We’ve all benefited.

And without boasting, North Carolina’s systems of higher education have become the envy of other states. Indeed, a former governor of Mississippi told me several years ago that – in his opinion – the single-most important difference between North Carolina and all of the other Southern states was the high quality of our University system, compared to theirs.

An economic-impact study released this past week serves to underscore the importance of higher education to our state and its economy: It revealed an eye-opening $63.5 billion in additional income that institutions of higher education generate in North Carolina, accounting for nearly 15 percent of our gross state product and the equivalent of more than 1 million jobs.

Whether it’s engineers and data scientists from UNC Charlotte, welders and customized training from Central Piedmont Community College or groundbreaking bioinformatics at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, higher education is integral to our region and our state.

And while Coach Smith would tell us not to brag about the institutions we all have built, neither should we take them for granted. Donny Hicks, an economic developer in Gaston County, says that without the presence of a research university, many companies would bypass our region. In part because of the economic downturn, all of our state’s public universities have experienced more than $500 million in budget cuts in recent years. According to the organization Higher Education Works, state support has declined by $2,516 per student, and each student now pays an additional $699 in tuition and fees on average.

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation projects that by 2018, 63 percent of all U.S. jobs will require some form of post-secondary education.

As our state’s population grows beyond 10 million people and we become the ninth largest state in the nation, our demand for higher education is not shrinking. On the contrary, our citizens will need more degrees in the years to come if they are to compete in the “world economy” in which we all now live.

For all these reasons, we need our officials in Raleigh and across the state to provide continued support for the vital “economic engine” that our state’s universities and community colleges constitute. Or as Coach Smith would say, we need them to “just do the right thing.”

Richard Vinroot is a past mayor of Charlotte.