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Tuition decision process questioned

Budget cuts force re-evaluation of options

When members of UNC’s tuition and fee advisory task force took their seats in South Building for Thursday’s meeting, the scene didn’t look too different from last fall.

Some of the same PowerPoint slides were projected before them. Bruce Carney, executive vice chancellor and provost, sat at the head of the table. Members looked at a proposal to raise tuition by 6.5 percent, and debated the competing priorities of providing low cost of attendance and maintaining a high quality education.

But there was a strong sense that what worked last year won’t work this year.

“This yearly debate about tuition is not constructive,” said Steve Farmer, director of admissions. “It’s become ritualized. We argue for a month about a difference of a hundred dollars. In a way, I supposed it’s cathartic. But it’s not a good use of anyone’s time.”

Several members called for a new, comprehensive tuition plan that would streamline the process and provide predictability for students in future years — likely through much higher tuition that could more closely align UNC with its peer institutions’ in-state cost of attendance.

“This is a real window of opportunity,” said Board of Trustees member Roger Perry. “We need to take control of our own destiny. Or at least have a plan that takes control of our own destiny.”

Farmer and Perry in particular suggested that raising tuition to put UNC in line with its peer public institutions would better protect the University from future state budget cuts. They also asserted that a higher but stabilized cost would give greater predictability to incoming students.

“People would know almost exactly what they’d have to pay,” Farmer said. “We wouldn’t be debating this each year.”

Each fall, the task force meets to debate tuition increases for the upcoming school year. But budget shortfalls and resulting tuition decisions are finalized in the following summer, leading to a feeling among some administrators that their fall tuition process needs to be restructured.

Proposals generated by last fall’s task force were approved through UNC’s Board of Trustees and the UNC-system Board of Governors, with a plan for a 5.2 percent tuition increase set in motion. But a provision in the N.C. General Assembly’s budget in July that allowed individual campuses to increase tuition by an additional $750 changed that figure.

Resident tuition increased by $950 for the current academic year, when an only $200 increase had been discussed earlier — a decision administrators said was crucial to maintaining quality of instruction, but received criticism from students.

With stimulus funding for the state set to expire this year, legislators have told University officials to prepare for another $54 million in state funding cuts, which Carney said could affect almost all aspects of campus, including tuition.

Officials such as Perry and Farmer, who played significant roles in Thursday’s discussion, said this year’s crisis provides a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the tuition process.

“We could be here 10 years from now and be having the same conversation we’re having today, if we have a series of one-year conversations each year talking about what we did last year,” Farmer said.

However, the state’s constitution mandates that the public system provide tuition as inexpensively as is “practicable,” and the plan would likely face serious opposition from students and state legislators. Currently, increases to in-state tuition are held to 6.5 percent, but that cap is set to expire this year.

Committee co-chairman and Student Body President Hogan Medlin was in class during Thursday’s meeting, but the task force will meet at least two more times before recommending a policy to the chancellor.

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