UNC should lead by lowering tuition and fees

November 13, 2013 

William Friday, the late president emeritus of the University of North Carolina system and the man who designed what is now a 16-campus structure, believed in the state’s constitutional imperative that the cost of a public education should be “as close to free as practicable.”

That has been a cornerstone of the UNC system, and Friday considered it a solemn promise. His successor, C.D. Spangler, agreed, and was known to discourage individual trustee boards, particularly that of his own alma mater in Chapel Hill, from raising tuition.

But presidents thereafter, Molly Broad and Erskine Bowles, honestly struggling to maintain quality and without what they felt was adequate support from the General Assembly, allowed tuition to increase at individual campuses, particularly the large research institutions in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. That gave lawmakers an excuse to not provide adequate funding, and now hiking tuition is considered routine, as in the case of a recent consideration of the UNC system Board of Governors to put a cap on tuition increases of 5 percent.

Board members consider that giving students a break.

Instead, the UNC system now can lead the nation in the opposite direction, not by capping tuition increases but by beginning to lower tuition on all campuses.

The cost of tuition and fees for a year at UNC-Chapel Hill now stands at over $8,000, and the full cost of attendance, with room and board and high-priced books, is now over $20,000.

Are those who run universities actually of the belief that such a figure constitutes “as close to free as practicable”? Do they really think that in North Carolina that figure is within reach of average families?

For some years now, public universities have been in an “arms race” of sorts, feeling the need to build bigger and fancier dormitories, provide all sorts of amenities, they say, to attract the best students, to compete with “peer” institutions. And then there are the athletics programs.

University administrative structures have expanded as well, with more layers between chancellors and faculty and students.

We do not question that the nation’s university leaders believe their spending, facilitated at larger institutions by billion-dollar fund-raising campaigns, is aimed at bettering education. And in North Carolina, a Republican-led General Assembly is not favorably inclined toward public education. But, in that frenzied competition for the best facilities and the best professors and the best students, have university administrators come to regard all expenditures as absolutely necessary, when perhaps they are not?

President Obama earlier this year announced his belief that public universities in particular needed to look for ways to cut expenses to find efficiencies. In fact, he suggested that federal aid might be tied to a measure of efficiency in tuition rates (meaning they’re not bloated), graduation rates, the debt students build to pay for school, and how many lower-income students can attend a school. The administration talked about “good value” from colleges and universities.

Just this week, N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson met with White House officials about the president’s belief that universities should ensure access to the middle class.

It’s true that UNC-CH consistently is ranked as a bargain, often the best bargain, when it comes to higher education. That’s great, but those kinds of rankings, comparing universities with each other, don’t mean that even institutions that are considered “bargains” are necessarily as affordable as they should be.

UNC system schools, especially in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, should look for efficiency, should trim administrative costs, should look at spending in the context of difficult economic challenges. All businesses, and all families, have had to reassess their priorities.

Universities could stand a little self-examination. Let the UNC system be a leader. Let it lead the crusade to lower tuition, to hold true to that constitutional mandate that seems to have been forgotten or ignored.

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