Tuition isn’t just about the numbers

“Poverty is not an excuse from but a reason for education.”

Former UNC President Edward Kidder Graham wrote this in 1916, reminding us of the bedrock principles of accessibility and affordability upon which our “University of the people” is built.

But in our current tuition discussion, we seem to be lost in a tedious numbers game of percentage points and dollar signs.

Of course, specific financial suggestions are an important part of this discussion. It was encouraging to see Student Body President Mary Cooper’s proposal on Monday — an earnest and level-headed attempt at compromise with Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bruce Carney’s unreasonable proposal. Carney has a duty to the student body to explain the reasoning behind his egregious 15.6 percent hike.

But regardless of whether you support Carney’s 15.6 percent in-state tuition increase or the Cooper administration’s 6.4 percent, this isn’t simply a question of numbers.

It is a question of who we are as a University. It is a question of what we stand for as a state. It is a question of whether we stand by our principle that the University should be an equalizer in an economic system of increasing inequality. As the full Board of Trustees votes today on Carney’s proposal, we must remember the moral context that grounds every single number in this discussion.

Some plans to increase tuition call for a complementary increase in financial aid packages. With any tuition plan, we will wholeheartedly approve of robust financial aid packages and scholarships for lower- and middle-class students. But these plans do not ensure access. Tuition hikes at our peer institutions have drastically reduced the number of low-income applicants.

Little by little, we swallow a higher cost of education. Year after year, we burden our students with the bill. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we gradually lose the essence of who we are.

According to the census, the poverty rate for children increased from 20.7 percent to 22 percent between 2009 and 2010. If we want to talk numbers, those are the ones we should focus on.

Kidder Graham fought for “public ownership of the tools of progress.” But our “public” universities are increasingly becoming unaffordable and accessible only to students whose parents had the same access to higher education.

We often speak of UNC as an “engine of innovation,” but we should not forget that it was also created to serve as an engine of social mobility. The mantra “University of the people” was our first — and still most important — innovation. Chancellor Holden Thorp has reminded us, “Our to-do list is nothing less than the greatest problems of our times.” Let us recognize decreasing public access to education as one of these great problems.

This public university has a responsibility to the people: to keep its doors open — to all social classes, all races, all worthy students no matter their parents’ ability to pay. It is not a convenient goal, especially today, but it must be our guiding moral principle in any discussion on tuition.

Joseph Terrell, Campus Y Director of Internal relations and junior religious studies major, wrote this column on behalf of the Campus Y executive board. Contact him at jmooreterrell@gmail.com

Thanks for reading.

Read more in EditorialsBruce CarneyCampus YTuitionOpinion

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