CHAPEL HILL — Amid a loud occupy-style student protest, the UNC Board of Governors today approved tuition and fee increases averaging 8.8 percent for in-state undergraduates across the 16 universities.
About 150 student protesters marched, chanted and pushed their way into the lobby outside the UNC Board of Governors meeting before the vote. At least one person was arrested.
Some occupied the seats of UNC chancellors, catching the UNC administrators off guard. "Those seats are our seats!" the students chanted from the lobby. Extra chairs were brought into the room for the chancellors.
Earlier in the morning, the students marched down Raleigh Road toward the UNC administration building, beating drums and carrying signs and banners. They were met by police officers who tried to prevent the crowd from entering the building.
The students pushed ahead anyway, and set about creating noise outside the meeting with call-and-response chants that have been a hallmark of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
At the open of the meeting, UNC President Tom Ross called it "a defining moment" for the university.
On Thursday, the board's budget and finance committee approved UNC President Tom Ross' recommendations, which also call for a second year of tuition increases for in-state undergraduates that average 4.2 percent. Prices for 2013-2014 will be set later for out-of-state students and graduate students; campuses may study shifting more of the cost to those students after next year.
Ross' proposal, which passed the committee 5-1 Thursday, would increase 2012-13 in-state, undergraduate tuition and fees by 8.5 percent at N.C. Central University, 9.8 percent at N.C. State University and 9.9 percent at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Some of the UNC campuses had asked for higher tuition to help cope with state budget cuts, but Ross insisted that increases stay below 10 percent. His plan aims to help UNC campuses stabilize after budget reductions that have led to larger class sizes and reduced course offerings.
"I tried to consider where the state is right now in terms of its own economy," Ross said. "I've tried to consider where our campuses are and the impact of the reductions that we've had to absorb over the last four years. I've tried to consider students and families who are striving to get an education, but in an environment in which the economy is tough. So I think we've had to balance all of this to be sure that we're protecting quality at the same time that we're remaining as accessible and affordable as possible. It's very tough during the times we're facing."
Various proposals for price increases have been debated at the state's public universities for months, and the process culminates with today's vote. Students from across the state are expected to protest outside the meeting in Chapel Hill. They have argued that the increases are extreme during a down economy when jobs are scarce. Tuition is always an emotional topic in North Carolina, a state with a constitutional provision for free higher education "as far as practicable."
Student leaders agree
The Association of Student Governments, a systemwide body of student leaders, has endorsed Ross' recommendation. Members argue that an increase is necessary to prevent academics from eroding.
"Of course, if you ask any student, they're going to say, 'No, I don't want to pay any more tuition and fees. This is ridiculous,' " said T.J. Eaves, student body president at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. "But we all understand that the quality of education is very important to every one of us, as our degrees are going to set us off on our careers for the rest of our lives."
Eaves said class size has ballooned and faculty are cutting back on student assignments because they can't keep up with the workload. He said he no longer has to write 15-page papers. "The teachers can't do that anymore because they've got so many students," he said.
Frank Grainger, a board member from Cary, thanked student leaders for their input, but added, "I wonder if their parents were here, if they would make the same comments. They're the ones writing the checks."
Board members seem to be split on whether to impose two years of increases, which would be a departure from board practice. There's also a philosophical divide about the way tuition proceeds are carved up across the UNC system.
State law mandates that campuses set aside 25 percent of tuition revenue for financial aid for the neediest students. Some campuses propose setting aside a larger chunk to cover the cost for poor students.
But some board members adamantly oppose that method, which they say is unfair to struggling middle class students who are "taxed" to pay the bills of others.
Board member Burley Mitchell of Raleigh, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said it is not right to take from one student to give to another. He wants to prohibit campuses from devoting more than 25 percent of tuition proceeds to need-based financial aid.
"Your predecessor, who I love like a brother, was wrong," he said to Ross, referring to former UNC President Erskine Bowles, who had advocated for the set asides.
'One size doesn't fit all'
Brent Barringer, a board member from Cary, said he agrees with Mitchell's philosophy, but in practice it's hard to apply one rule to all 16 campuses. Some campuses have less than 40 percent of students who qualify for need-based aid; others have 70 percent or more.
"The problem with that is one size doesn't fit all," he said. "It's at least premature, and maybe it's wrong, to think that we can apply one remedy to 16 problems."
Ross promised a full review of need-based financial aid practices and policies in the coming months. The question is not whether to have need-based financial aid, he said, but where the money comes from. A state need-based grant program was cut by $35 million last year, he said. More than 50 percent of the UNC system's 220,000 students are on need-based aid.
"The need for financial aid - because of the economy in part, because of changing demographics, for lots of reasons - has been rising," he said. "It's an issue we have to face."
In the past few years, the UNC board has had a tuition plan that capped tuition and fee increases at 6.5 percent. Ross said he's not abandoning that plan, even though his proposals go further.
"This year there are extraordinary circumstances, and so we've presented a two-year plan," he said, "to try to put the Band-Aids on the most serious problems that we're facing so that we can stabilize our campuses. We've got a lot of work to do here. Some of that work is about being more efficient and more effective in what we do. It's about looking at ways that we can deliver our academic program less expensively. ... We've got to do that. It takes some time. The low-hanging fruit is gone."