A week before North Carolina’s Democratic primary for governor, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper unveiled his eight-point plan for public education, including proposals for Pre-K programs, child care tax credits, literacy programs, teacher pay and college affordability.
It was that last part that caught the eye of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. The next day, McCrory released a statement bashing Cooper and trying to tie him to former Gov. Bev Perdue. McCrory lost to Perdue in 2008 but won the governor’s office in 2012 after Perdue, facing low popularity numbers, decided not to seek re-election.
"Just like Bev Perdue, Roy Cooper won't say how he will pay for ‘free’ college tuition," McCrory said in a Facebook post. That claim and ones like it have since been repeated often by the McCrory campaign.
Perdue did indeed propose free tuition plans, and in their 2008 campaign McCrory criticized her for them. She shelved them just days before she was sworn in, citing the worsening recession.
But we were more curious about what McCrory had to say about his current opponent. Does Cooper really propose offering free college tuition? And does he lack a plan to pay for it?
Luckily, finding the answers didn't require us to go back to college for another costly degree.
First, the promise of tuition
The McCrory administration paints an overly broad stroke here by simply using the term "college." Cooper’s plan only covers community college.
Cooper promises in his plan – which is available on his website – "to design a proposal for North Carolina to offer free tuition for community college." His plan doesn't mention anything about making four-year colleges or advanced degree programs free.
Furthermore, free community college tuition is already partially in place, at least for enterprising teenagers. Anyone who’s enrolled in a public, private or home-school high school and has a B average can take community college classes for free – a program called Career and College Promise that Perdue started in 2011, with support from the Republican-led legislature.
Cooper is proposing to expand the availability of free tuition to everyone, though. That’s a lot of people, but not nearly as many as if he were proposing free tuition for college in general, as McCrory implied.
A plan to pay for it?
The state has reported that 733,855 students took classes at the state’s 58 community college campuses in the 2014-15 school year.
The North Carolina community college system calls itself the third largest in the country. It would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year if the state paid all those students’ tuition, which is $76 per credit hour this year.
But Cooper's plan says the state shouldn’t pay for 100 percent of the tuition. He proposes covering what’s left after factoring in scholarships and financial aid.
Still, that’s not nothing. So what's Cooper’s plan to pay for it?
McCrory said Cooper "won't say." And that much is true. Cooper’s plan is specific on what he wants to pay for, but not on where the money would come from. It also doesn’t provide an estimate as to how much the plan might cost.
Cooper spoke to reporters after releasing his plan on March 8. According to The Associated Press, he gave a few vague ideas for paying the plan, but he mostly stressed that he wouldn't increase taxes to pay for it.
Instead, he said he wanted to rework some of the recent tax changes passed by the General Assembly, but "I'm not wedded to any particular formula."
Citing the presumably high cost of the program, McCrory campaign spokesman Ricky Diaz said Cooper "seemingly is trying to be coy about reviving a broken promise from former governor Bev Perdue."
But just because Cooper hasn't detailed how he would pay for community college tuition doesn't mean he has no plan whatsoever. He outlines how he will put together a team to figure out the details, and what kind of benefits he thinks such a program would have.
Let’s hear it, in its entirety:
"A number of states either have a free community college program or are considering offering one. The program works as a last dollar scholarship program whereby the state provides a grant to cover the remaining share of tuition and fees after Pell Grants and other financial aid and scholarships are applied. Most programs also offer mentors to help students navigate the college process on their journey toward success. As governor, I will put together a team of education partners and budgetary advisors to design a proposal for North Carolina to offer free tuition for community college. This would provide more students access to college and create opportunity for students to earn better paying jobs. Additionally it will help our state to meet our employers’ demands for educated workers and address the gap that now exists for skilled labor."
That's a start, although McCrory is right that Cooper hasn't given the public any details on how the state would pay for his plan.
McCrory's claim is overly broad, failing to distinguish between college and community college. In enrollment numbers and especially the cost of tuition, that's a massive difference.
Adding the single word "community" might have toned down the intended rhetorical effect of the quote, but it also would've added needed context.
Still, Cooper does propose offering free tuition for community college, which would cover hundreds of thousands of students statewide. He has said what the state won't pay for (the full cost of tuition) and one way he won’t pay for it (tax hikes), but it’s correct to say that Cooper does not have a specific plan – or at least one that’s publicly available – for paying for his proposal.
We rate this claim Half True.