For a while, it seemed the good times were never going to end for the University of North Carolina System. Thanks to the leadership and influence of William Friday as president over a 30-year period, the university enjoyed near-carte blanche with the General Assembly, building programs and 16 university campuses and enrolling more and more students. Under Friday, tuition increases were rare.
Things have changed, in the wake of recession, and while that’s a reason for the increases in student debt, another major reason is that colleges and universities have raised prices ahead of inflation and family income. President Obama has made an issue of the high costs and says the federal government is going to look at whether universities are efficient and mindful of expenses as federal grants are considered.
Indeed, all public institutions should be doing some internal looks: Might they cut the number of assistant vice presidents or associate vice chancellors? Are there duplicate programs that might be shared with other campuses? The cost of a public education everywhere has gone way up. Today, counting all expenses, a year at UNC-Chapel Hill is around $23,000. Even with financial aid having increased, many students, particularly middle-class students who may not be eligible for a lot of aid, have a struggle. And the UNC-CH tab is a bargain in the national context.
Nationwide, the landscape in terms of expense has been altered dramatically. Just 20 years ago, fewer than half of students graduated with loan debt. Today, two-thirds have debt and the debt averages over $25,000. College remains a dream for many. But universities must do their part to ensure the dream is attainable.