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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC Tries to Balance Perception, Tuition

But as the cost of tuition rises, so do fears that the University is becoming inaccessible to all but the most wealthy residents of the state.

Provost Robert Shelton said that, with news of in-state tuition -- generally considered low -- being raised nearly 40 percent in three years, some students and parents across the state are picking up newspapers and then tossing aside their applications to the University.

He said that as tuition increases, many families think, "My child is a good student, but I know we could never afford to send them to Carolina."

On Dec. 19, members of UNC's Tuition Task Force will vote on a tuition proposal that is likely to raise tuition anywhere between $300 and $400 over the next three to five years.

Two campus-based increases in the past three years -- each of which was met with intense protest -- already have yielded $900 in tuition increases. The 1999 tuition increase even prompted the formation of a student group called the Coalition for Educational Access, dedicated to keeping costs low and the University open to anyone.

But each time officials have raised UNC's cost of attendance, they have set aside funds for financial aid to keep down out-of-pocket costs for students.

University officials have reaffirmed their commitment to keeping UNC open to all North Carolinians. But they fear that a perception lingers that UNC's affordability has diminished, despite their efforts to dispel this myth.

"The students we need to be most concerned about are the best and brightest in North Carolina, ensuring they have an accurate picture of what Carolina costs," said Student Body President Jen Daum.

Jerry Lucido, director of undergraduate admissions, said that more and more students are applying for financial aid and that the number of low-income and minority students on campus actually is growing. But Lucido said the misconception that the University is not accessible persists.

Lucido said that although the cost of attending UNC continues to rise, he is not concerned that tuition increases will make the University less accessible because every time tuition is raised, parts of the revenue are earmarked for financial aid. But he said he is worried that some students will not apply because they think the University is too expensive.

"The perception issue does not have to do with the actual cost; it has to do with the perceived cost," he said.

Herb Davis, associate director of undergraduate admissions, said studies have shown that socioeconomic status affects students' views of how much it costs to attend college. Lucido said he attributes some of this misconception to the University's selectivity and national prominence because people generally associate exclusivity with higher cost.

Both University officials and student leaders say the University's tradition of keeping tuition affordable always will remain strong while they continue to strive for academic excellence.

Daum, who serves as co-chairwoman of the Tuition Task Force, said keeping tuition affordable through increases in student aid is the committee's top priority. "Under no circumstances will we raise tuition without raising the amount of aid and holding students harmless."

Shirley Ort, director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, said that officials would prefer to have lower tuition but that because that is not feasible, they work hard to offset the costs of rising tuition. "We don't want to become too selective and become a University just for those who have money," she said.

Ort said federal grants, new aid from tuition increases and state grants passed down from the N.C. General Assembly fund the financial aid that helps keep costs down in spite of rising tuition.

Officials in the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid have worked to raise the number of students who apply for financial aid, resulting in a 21 percent increase over the last year.

University officials attempt to provide as much financial aid as possible in the form of grants and scholarships rather than loans. They aim to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need and to meet 65 percent of that in the form of scholarships and grants that will not have to be repaid. "We can't assume (low-income students) will continue to come if they have to take out large loans," Ort said.

Ort also said it is not only crucial that students apply for aid but that they apply on time. Financial aid awards are handed out in stages, and the later the stage in which the application is turned in, the more likely it is that students will have most of their need met in the form of student loans rather than grants.

Ort said the students who are more likely to be affected by the increases are the students whose families do not qualify for student aid but who cannot afford school out of pocket. "The federal formula says they owe, but they don't have it."

Financial aid officers are worried about these students, but Ort stressed that with non-need-based aid and other resources, students can find a way to pay for their education.

But Shelton said many prospective students who aren't exposed to officials' efforts on a daily basis don't know about this commitment and don't understand financial aid.

University officials strive to alert prospective students to the aid that is available for them with efforts spearheaded by the offices of admissions, scholarships and student aid, and minority affairs.

And Shelton said this outreach is still the most important part of ensuring that the University is accessible. "It isn't any good to have the money there if we can't get it to the people who need it -- if they're not applying."

Terri Houston, director of recruitment and service for the Office of Minority Affairs, said one program aimed at accomplishing this goal is the Tar Heel Target program.

The program, which began in the 1980s, consists of about 100 undergraduates who travel to N.C. high schools that they graduated from to talk to students about higher education.

The group aims to dispel myths that students can't get into UNC. Members also bring information from admissions and financial aid and tell students about scholarships.

Student representatives from Tar Heel Target don't talk specifically about tuition, but they bring information about financial aid. Their presence is testimony that someone from a given community can be successful at UNC, Houston said.

"They let the community know that Carolina is accessible and available and can certainly be an option for all students," she said.

Sophomore Derek Oxendine, co-coordinator of Tar Heel Target, said he has witnessed the skewed perception many high school students have about how much it costs to attend UNC. "A lot of them don't know what (UNC) really costs," he said. "They put it in the same category as Duke (University)."

Oxendine said that while most high school students are concerned with the cost of college in general, a few worry about tuition increases specifically. They want to know how much and how often tuition is increased.

Student representatives from Tar Heel Target tell prospective students that although tuition does go up on a regular basis, it is not completely unpredictable. They also tell them that students receiving financial aid will receive aid increases so they won't actually be paying more money, he said.

"We tell them, 'It's not as big of a factor as you think it is.'"

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