Tuition truths at UNC-system schools

UNC system leaders shouldn’t seek to stir up resentment of some students’ financial aid.

August 16, 2012 

Members of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors are right to be concerned about frequent and substantial tuition hikes. Although the UNC system’s comparatively low annual expenses continue to make some of its campuses “best buys” nationally, the tuition increases of recent years are undeniably burdensome.

That’s particularly so for families in the middle – those who earn too much to qualify for some financial aid programs but who lack the resources that would make paying for four years at a public university relatively easy.

Relief shouldn’t lie in pitting one segment of the student population against another. Yet that’s a course some members of the Board of Governors seem interested in taking.

The N&O’s Jane Stancill reported last week that there’s growing discontent on the Board of Governors with existing UNC policies designed to take some of the sting out of tuition hikes for lower-income families.

In part, this takes the form of pressure to cap the amount of financial aid that flows to needier students from across-the-board tuition hikes. In response, UNC system President Tom Ross proposes a 25 percent cap on the amount of new revenue from campus-initiated tuition hikes that is set aside for financial aid for needy students.

This would be a substantial accommodation, because in some cases the financial-aid percentage has been higher. Ross’ bow to the prevailing winds may be unavoidable, but no matter how you slice it the effect would be to make the lowest-income students pay more – not a good thing.

Some members of the Board of Governors, however, are on record as wanting more, a pound of flesh if you will.

They’re calling the longstanding UNC system practice of using some of the tuition-increase revenue to ease the strain on lower-income students a “hidden tax.” They’re pushing for increased “transparency” so that the aid that goes to needier students is reported on the bills that go out to all students and their parents.

Call it transparency with a vengeance.

However, if full disclosure really is the aim, billing practices would have to go a lot farther than this. The entire university system, after all, is subsidized and supported by taxpayers (state and federal) and by private donors in myriad, interlocking ways.

Almost uniquely, North Carolina requires in its constitution that higher education “as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” It’s an aspiration rather than a reality, but nonetheless taxpayers here do pony up an above-average amount to support the system’s 16 campuses.

That, in turn, holds down the cost for everyone, rich and poor, paying in-state tuition. Should the amount of this “subsidy” also be printed on tuition bills? Should notices be sent as well to all taxpayers who don’t have a family member at a public university? Shouldn’t the Board of Governors try to get them irked too?

Furthermore, to call setting aside some tuition-hike revenue to ease the strain on low-income families “a hidden tax” implies that the policy is somehow secret. Yet news stories about tuition increases commonly mention it, as did at least two in The N&O earlier this year.

Finding a cure for tuition hikes is no simple task, nor is apportioning fairly the unavoidable costs of running a well-regarded higher education system. Some real relief – for middle-income families most of all – could come from the General Assembly, which could place a higher priority on the constitution’s promise. After all, tight state budgets (partly due to hard times, partly to legislators’ political preferences) are largely responsible for public universities’ tuition hikes.

There’s your battle, Board of Governors.

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