Carol Folt, chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, was the keynote speaker Tuesday at the National Press Club, where she told journalists, alumni and a CSPAN audience that American universities can do more on affordability for students.
Folt discussed UNC’s record on low tuition, the state’s longstanding investment in higher education, and programs aimed at counseling high school students and supporting them when they arrive on campus. She spoke of the Carolina Covenant, the university’s debt-free scholarship for low-income students. UNC is need blind, meaning it admits students without regard to pay, and it is routinely at the top of Kiplinger’s Best Buy lists.
UNC students graduate with about $17,000 in debt after four years, while the national figure is about twice that, Folt said. The UNC debt load, she said, is unchanged in the last 15 years in inflation adjusted dollars – despite significant state budget cuts for UNC during the recession.
Folt pointed out that she started at a two-year college and worked her way through school as a waitress. Now, she said, climbing tuition is preventing many students from even getting to college. Research shows that the biggest predictor of finishing a college degree is family income; that, she said, is unfair.
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“I’ve spent my whole life in higher-ed wanting to fight against these trends and I think that’s why I’ve actually found that southern part of heaven in North Carolina because I was actually able to come to the public university that really is doing this in such a deep and strong way,” said Folt, who spent the bulk of her career at Dartmouth College in the Ivy League. She added that she “wouldn’t have any other job in America.”
In a question-and-answer session, Folt touched on other topics, including Confederate monuments, fraternities, campus sexual assault and accountability in higher education. She said K-12 teachers need higher pay and high school students need to spend more time on writing. “The online world probably has not helped very much in good writing or even critical thinking skills,” she said.
She was asked one question about UNC’s long-running athletic scandal involving so-called paper classes. She said the former African studies department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, should have been reviewed regularly. “It’s the great tragedy to look and say, my goodness, we could have stopped it. Well, we would stop it now.”