UNC board debates how much to set aside for financial aid

25-percent cap on help for needy proposed

jstancill@newsobserver.comAugust 9, 2012 

For a dozen years now, when University of North Carolina campuses have raised tuition, they have set aside a percentage of the revenue to cover the cost for lower-income students.

Now, the UNC Board of Governors is debating the merits of that strategy.

Several members of the Republican-majority board have expressed concern about the philosophy of middle and higher income families subsidizing tuition for other families. At the very least, some members say, universities are not transparent about the practice; most families who pay tuition don’t even realize it’s happening.

The board’s current four-year tuition plan requires each campus to set aside at least 25 percent of all new revenue from campus initiated tuition hikes for financial aid for needy students. On Thursday, UNC President Tom Ross floated a proposal to amend the plan to remove a minimum requirement and instead cap the set aside at 25 percent.

State financial aid was cut by the legislature last year, though some dollars were restored through lottery funds this year. And federal financial aid is in flux, Ross said, so a two-year temporary plan would allow campuses to have some stability in a changing landscape.

“If this isn’t right, vote it down, and I’ll be fine,” Ross said of his proposal of a 25-percent ceiling.

Board members had a spirited debate about the issue.

David Powers, a member from Winston-Salem, said it came as a shock to a single mom whose daughter at East Carolina University gets no financial aid when she learns that $100 of her daughter’s $400 increase is going to another student.

“There does need to be some transparency built into the system so the people who are paying for a child’s tuition actually know what they’re paying for,” he said.

‘Plain to the people’

Member Fred Eshelman of Wilmington called the financial aid set aside “a hidden tax.”

Some suggested disclosing the specifics of the set aside on the tuition statements that are sent to families. “I just think we need to make it plain to the people who are paying the bill of what we’re doing and what’s going on,” said Frank Grainger, a member from Cary.

Franklin McCain of Charlotte made an impassioned plea not to limit financial aid. He pointed out that all UNC system students are already subsidized by the taxpayers.

“I get a little concerned when we want to balance all of our funds for kids on the backs of the very poor,” he said. “When middle-class or middle-income kids have a little bit of tension or a little bit of difficulty, we seem to go into a tizzy. ... When we reduce the funds, you know who gets squeezed out of the educational equation. You already know that,” McCain said. “I think rather than trying to be exclusive, we ought to be looking for ways to keep these folk in the system.”

McCain, a civil rights pioneer and one of the four N.C. A&T State students who staged the famous Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro in 1960, chided his fellow board members. “You’re good people, but I don’t think you want to do and accomplish what I’m hearing around this table,” he said. “I don’t think you want to do that.”

At some schools, more students need aid

A 25 percent cap would be the worst-case scenario for some campuses, said James Anderson, chancellor of Fayetteville State University, where 80 percent are poor students who qualify for federal Pell Grants.

Some members liked the idea of a disclosure statement but said campus leaders should be allowed the flexibility to determine the percentage of the set aside for each university.

Cameron Carswell, an Appalachian State student and nonvoting member of the board, pointed out that more students need financial aid than ever before. She said the set-aside translates to an additional $7 a month for her and that is well worth helping needy students and ensuring diversity on campus.

“It’s not just about being able to afford education, it’s that someone else believes in you and they are willing to pay money to help you succeed,” Carswell said.

The board is likely vote on the issue in September.

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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