The campus cost balloon

November 20, 2012 

Budget cuts inflicted by the General Assembly on University of North Carolina system campuses have persuaded various university leaders that tuition and fees must rise to help make up the difference. But as the two big research campuses move toward asking their students, and students’ families, to dig deeper, Chancellor Randy Woodson of N.C. State at least strikes a welcome note about the importance of keeping costs down.

His comments bear repeating, because they suggest that NCSU is serious about keeping its need for more revenue in perspective and thus setting a good example.

“We need to do all that we can to remain as affordable as practical for our students and their families,” Woodson told The N&O’s Jay Price. He added: “We also need to send a message that we’re continuing to work on finding administrative cost savings so that we can wring as much as possible out of the budget we have.” That’s the spirit.

When the Republican-controlled legislature went looking for spending cuts to balance the recession-wracked state budget, universities took a severe haircut. The risk was that core missions would be damaged, and the impulse to make students pay more was understandable – especially since UNC schools remain a relative bargain.

Still, affordability can easily be compromised by the steady drip-drip-drip of rising costs that students have had to absorb. That means some young North Carolinians may be priced out of an education that would be their ticket to realizing their full potential as productive citizens. Not for nothing is the promise of low-cost higher education enshrined in the state constitution.

Absent the kind of administrative discipline invoked by Woodson, tuition increases could end up subsidizing management inefficiencies rather than helping maintain adequate levels of teaching and research. NCSU seeks to raise tuition for in-state undergrads by $290 a year, or 5.1 percent. All students also would pay about $129 a year more in fees.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, undergraduates who are North Carolina residents face a 10 percent increase in tuition, or $600 a year, plus slightly higher fees. Tuition for the current year also went up.

Considering that the Chapel Hill campus’ appropriation from the legislature was whacked by $100 million, relying more heavily on tuition as a revenue source is probably inevitable, and expenses borne by UNC-CH students remain low compared to similar universities elsewhere.

The sting is lessened, though, if campus leaders can echo Woodson’s emphasis on keeping administrative costs in check. And a university that takes pains to keep itself within financial reach for students from modest backgrounds will do the most to serve the state.

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