Cal Cunningham, the front-runner in the North Carolina Democratic Senate primary, recently emphasized his commitment to reducing tuition costs in an op-ed placed in the UNC student newspaper. But when he was in a position to directly affect tuition rates as UNC’s student-body president, he voted to raise them.
Cunningham’s main rival for the Democratic nomination, little-known progressive state legislator Erica Smith, has endorsed Bernie Sanders’s plan for tuition-free community college while attacking Cunningham from the left, casting him as an establishment candidate hand-picked by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.
The newly created and mysterious Faith and Family PAC has come to play a surprising role in the primary. Given the PAC’s use of vendors who typically work with Republican candidates, there has been rampant speculation that it is part of an effort by Republican operatives to boost the incumbent, Senator Thom Tillis, and weaken Cunningham, his likely general-election opponent. And last week, it spent $2.4 million to run ads labeling Smith “the only true progressive” in the race.
In response, Cunningham sought to bolster his progressive support by announcing his commitment to lowering the cost of higher education in an op-ed in the pages of his alma mater’s newspaper.
“The opportunity to pursue higher education should be available to anyone who seeks it — not just a privilege for those who can afford it,” Cunningham wrote in the Daily Tarheel. “To achieve that, we need to lower the cost of college and reduce the burden of student loan debt, particularly for African American students, who have been disproportionately impacted by the student loan crisis.”
Yet when Cunningham was in a position to directly affect the tuition costs at his state’s flagship university — where he served as a trustee on the school’s board thanks to his position as student-body president — he voted to raise them. As a 21-year-old senior at UNC Chapel Hill in 1995, Cunningham voted in favor of raising undergraduate tuition by $400 and graduate tuition by $600 annually. While he tried unsuccessfully to delay consideration of the tuition increase until the student body was more informed about its implications, he ultimately voted in favor of the hike because he believed it would boost UNC’s lackluster position in national college rankings by increasing faculty salaries.
“I’m hearing both Yes and No from the student body,” Cunningham told the Chapel Hill Herald at the time. “But I’m also hearing that our tuition is so artificially low, and if our quality is suffering because of that, and we can use the increase to address those needs, students will consider that an investment.”
Cunningham also admitted that the vote put him in a “awkward and trying and difficult situation” in a Chapel Hill Herald article from that year, which quoted freshman Rayna Walters as saying Cunningham “betrayed” her and her fellow students.
The budget, which passed unanimously, did stipulate that 35 percent of the revenue resulting from the tuition increase would be allocated to need-based financial aid, while the rest would go toward increasing faculty salaries and funding campus libraries.
It would not be the last time that Cunningham backed tuition hikes. In 2001 and 2002, during his time as a state senator, he voted for budgets that raised community-college tuition costs. The 2002 budget also raised the cost of public universities by 8 percent for in-state students and 12 percent for out-of-state students.
When asked for comment on Cunningham’s record of support for tuition increases, his spokesman, Aaron Simpson, argued that the candidate’s record on the cost of higher education compares favorably to Tillis’s, despite the aforementioned votes.
“While Senator Tillis has voted against efforts to make college more affordable, Cal actually expanded financial aid for community colleges and fought to expand need-based scholarships and aid, both in the state Senate and through his involvement at UNC. More broadly, Cal’s been an advocate for public education by increasing teacher pay and reducing class sizes.”
The 2001 and 2002 state budgets that Cunningham voted for did in fact reduce the size of kindergarten classes while providing $1 million for community-college financial aid. But a much larger sum, $14.5 billion for the 2001–2002 fiscal year, was spent on increasing the salaries of teachers and other state employees.
Reached for comment by National Review, Smith called Cunningham’s record “deeply troubling” and contrasted it to her own legislative history, which includes sponsoring a bill that would have frozen tuition rates for the state’s university system in order to prevent spiking costs.
“As a public-school educator and education policy leader in the NC Senate, I have advanced significant proposals for making college affordable by eliminating tuition surcharges for students who don’t graduate on time,” Smith said. “I fought against steep tuition increases by sponsoring legislation that established four and five-year tuition lock-in rates in NC’s University system schools as tools for reducing student debt. It appears once again, in [Cunningham’s] privilege, his policies are not progressively informed to ensure that every American has access to affordable secondary education.”