access to what?

As a result of the recession and the Republican takeover of the NC legislature, the UNC system has taken–and is expecting more–major cuts to its state appropriation. Unlike some other public flagships, notably Michigan and Virginia, UNC is very much a state school and we are very dependent on that state money to remain high quality, public, and accessible. UNC tuition remains very low compared to peers, but far from negligible.

Our chancellor proposed a large increase (percentage-wise) over four years, which met with loud outcries not only from students but also from the Trustees and eventually the systemwide President, who decreed that no campus’s tuition increase this year could go above 10%.  His proposal for Chapel Hill is 9.9%, well below the numbers that were circulating over the summer and fall: more like 15-20%. The Constitution of North Carolina provides 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.

A coalition of student groups I usually agree with is organizing for a student voice and arguing against any tuition increases at all on grounds of access. The groups, though, are targeting the UNC system and its campuses, and have virtually nothing to say about the root of the problem: the NC legislature’s misguided decisions on education funding. I am very uncomfortable with endorsing a no-tuition-increase, low-tuition-at-any-cost platform for the following reasons:

First: though the increases at UNC-CH and other UNC system campuses are very large percentage-wise, the actual bottom line remains much more affordable than really any of our academic peers, even before aid is figured in. The contribution to overall student debt of, say, $60K/year to attend an elite private university certainly dwarfs that required to attend UNC. This is NOT an argument for tuition increases in general, but in the presence of the next concern, I would argue it is a reason to balance tuition increases with other concerns.

Second: the treasure of UNC is not just access, it is access to something. It is access to a top-quality intellectual environment in
which scholarship, teaching, and learning are intertwined. Because of the legislature’s short-sighted approach to funding the campus, we face the very real danger of reducing the quality of that environment in ways we can all see every day. So the question of tuition doesn’t take place in a vacuum; to the extent that low tuition further starves the University, we run the risk of advocating broad access to less, which is not a good thing for us or the public (or the students) in the long run.

Finally: the issue remains that NC taxation is relatively regressive, so low tuition for high-social-capital students in many cases amounts to lower-income citizens paying the way for higher-income students, and I think we should all find that troubling. I still don’t know what to do about it, but I don’t think we can ignore it. At a minimum, I think it would make sense to push for alumni with large incomes to pledge to donate to UNC specifically on the grounds of having achieved these incomes in part on the backs of subsidies from the public.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

1 thought on “access to what?”

  1. This is, as all of us at public institutions know, a HUGE issue. Our now-departed former Chancellor successfully got undergraduate student backing for a tuition increase with a program that included guaranteeing increased financial aid for low-income students; this was also coupled with an initiative to use donor funds for improved undergraduate instruction.

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