Keeping UNC-CH academically excellent and affordable

The 2015 U.S. News & World Report College Guide recently ranked UNC-Chapel Hill the best value among all public universities – the best education for the most affordable price – for the 10th year in a row. And Kiplinger’s Magazine has rated it as the best-value college education for its cost every year for the past 13 years. It is important to remember the history of how Carolina achieved this.

The N.C. Constitution states that, “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” For many years this led to a widely accepted belief that “the best form of financial aid is low tuition.”

In the late 1990s, however, we confronted the reality – based on hard evidence from national data – that despite its extraordinarily low tuition, North Carolina ranked only 37th in student access to an affordable college education, primarily because of our limited financial aid resources. If the spirit of the state constitution was to make higher education as accessible as possible to all North Carolina residents, it seemed clear that we were not fulfilling it.

Then as now, we faced the reality of diminished state funding, which threatened our ability to continue to provide the high quality of education to our students that has made UNC-Chapel Hill consistently one of the five best public universities in the nation and such a valuable asset to North Carolina. Yet tuition increases without commensurate need-based financial aid would risk worsening financial accessibility.

After intense debate, UNC-Chapel Hill adopted its first significant increase in tuition but conditioned it on two fundamental policy commitments unanimously agreed to by the university community: We would not increase our tuition beyond the bottom 25 percent of similar public universities and we would use up to 40 percent of every tuition increase, as needed, to ensure that we continued to meet 100 percent of the documented financial need of each student.

Throughout the 15 years since these policies were adopted and through several additional tuition increases, Carolina has never broken these commitments. Almost alone among other colleges, Carolina meets 100 percent of every student’s documented financial need, and its tuition is still in the bottom 25 percent of similar public universities.

The results of this policy have been dramatic. Carolina students graduate with an average debt of less than $18,000, the lowest of any public or private college in the state and far lower than most (average debt at most other colleges was more than $23,000). Students qualifying for UNC’s Carolina Covenant can even graduate debt-free. This pioneering program is available to all students who maintain solid academic performance and whose families earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $46,000 for a family of four).

By adopting these policies, Carolina has led the nation in providing an outstanding college education at an affordable price. They directly benefit not only low-income students but many from middle-income families as well and, more generally, all our students. They are ongoing evidence of Carolina’s commitment to the people of North Carolina and to the historic principle of access to affordable public higher education that was established by North Carolina’s constitution.

As public discussion continues on the affordability of college education, on tuition costs and on financial aid, I hope all North Carolinians will continue to take pride in Carolina’s success in combining academic excellence with affordable access. I also hope that they will reaffirm the university’s commitment to the core principles of maintaining its academic excellence while continuing to admit students independent of their ability to pay and meeting 100 percent of every student’s need and will support policies to assure Carolina’s continuing leadership in these achievements.

Richard (Pete) Andrews, professor of Public Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, served as elected chair of the UNC faculty from 1997 to 2000.