Point of View

A vital increase in UNC's tuition

February 5, 2012 

— All of us who attended a constituent campus of the University of North Carolina arrived on the backs of our families, taxpayers and private donors who believed in the public good of higher education and that a vibrant public university is in the self-interest of the state. We should not - indeed, we cannot - allow our state's system of public universities to drift into mediocrity for lack of adequate funding.

As the General Assembly struggles in a challenging economy with how best to allocate scarce public resources, support by North Carolina taxpayers of UNC-Chapel Hill has diminished significantly - by almost a quarter of a billion dollars, in the aggregate, since 2008, including $101 million (18 percent) in the current fiscal year. Gifts from private donors, even in a difficult economy, have held steady, but are hardly enough to offset the substantial reduction in state funding.

Some ask, appropriately, has the university really made a serious effort to reduce operating costs as virtually every other nonprofit and for-profit entity has been forced to do?

More than three years ago, UNC-Chapel Hill commissioned a comprehensive efficiency study called "Carolina Counts" by Bain & Co., a nationally known business consulting firm. (Other major universities are now undertaking the same initiative.) As a result, UNC-Chapel Hill has eliminated approximately $50 million in annual operating expenses.

More campus cost reductions must and will occur; there are no sacred cows. But, unfortunately, as UNC system President Tom Ross recently observed, "The really easy decisions have been made."

The funding gap is now taking its toll. Cuts have been made to the library; class sizes have increased; some classes have been eliminated altogether; and students are experiencing difficulty getting into classes that instantly fill up and close out, leading to potential delays in graduation.

The campus has dropped in three years from 35th to 59th in the U.S. News and World Report's ranking of faculty resources at national universities. Last year, when faculty members were recruited by other universities, UNC-Chapel Hill lost two-thirds of its retention efforts, a troubling rate twice that of previous years.

There is a competitive market for top-tier faculty, and UNC's losses, in large part, resulted from four years without salary increases for key faculty and staff members. The best teachers and scholars attract the best students, who, in the final analysis, are the heart and soul of any university.

Not only have critical faculty departures in recent years resulted in a significant loss of core teaching skills and subject matter expertise for Carolina students, 22 of those who left last year were responsible for some $50 million in external research funding. Those research dollars followed them to other universities, along with the good jobs supported by their grants.

UNC-Chapel Hill's most coveted teachers, scholars and researchers accounted for a whopping three-quarters of a billion dollars in research revenue for the university last year. While engaged in the search for solutions to some of the state's and nation's most perplexing problems, these faculty members provided a much-needed infusion of cash into North Carolina's ailing economy while creating high-paying jobs that produced a corresponding increase in state tax revenue.

The Board of Trustees at Chapel Hill and those of the other constituent campuses have had no choice but to revisit the sensitive issue of tuition. Tuition increases are, of course, never desirable, especially in a challenging economy. But, in evaluating the reasonableness of the proposed increase, the tuition at UNC-Chapel Hill should be compared with that of other comparable public or private universities.

For an unprecedented 11th consecutive time, UNC-Chapel Hill was recently named by Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine as America's No. 1 value among the nation's "Best Values In Public Colleges." Kiplinger's emphasized quality and affordability, taking into account the precarious economy, each university's tuition price, its four-year graduation rate, the availability of financial aid and student borrowing rates - all areas in which Carolina excels.

Moreover, even with the tuition increase proposed by President Ross and supported by the campus Board of Trustees, Carolina would rank dead last in tuition costs among peer-group public research universities.

Consistent with the state's constitutional mandate to make the university accessible to the people of North Carolina "as far as practicable . . . free of expense," and the university's 218 year commitment to educate the children of the state's farmers, factory workers, teachers, small business owners and low- and middle-income families, the Board of Trustees would allocate a portion of the proposed tuition increase for need-based financial aid. As a result, no one, otherwise qualified, is or will be precluded from attending on the basis of financial hardship.

I personally came from modest economic circumstances and was the first member of my family to attend college, so no one could be more sensitive to the necessity of protecting and assuring access to the university by all North Carolinians. UNC-Chapel Hill is the national model for student financial accessibility. It is one of only two of its public peer universities, along with the University of Virginia, that meets 100 percent of each student's demonstrated financial need. The Class of 2011 left with $2,525 less in debt (in constant dollars) than the graduating class in 2000, an indication that students are, in fact, better off, financially, today than a decade ago.

Consistent with its historical commitment to affordable higher education, the university is taking steps to maintain and strengthen the academic experience for future generations of North Carolina students while continuing to assure that no one is denied access on the basis of financial need. We owe no less to those who come after us.

Wade Hargrove, a lawyer in Raleigh, is an honors graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, a recipient of its law school's Distinguished Alumnus Award and current chair of its Board of Trustees.

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