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Tuition hike proposal forces Cooper to make tough decisions

Mary Cooper

The University’s desperate search for funding has thrust Student Body President Mary Cooper into the spotlight.

In anticipation of another round of millions cut in state funding, Cooper finds herself in the middle of a dispute between two opposing forces: administrators, who say tuition increases are necessary to maintain academic quality, and students, many of whom say they can’t handle the financial burden of further hikes.

And the recent proposition of in-state tuition hikes as large as $2,800 — an unprecedented 40 percent — during the next two to four years has Cooper struggling to craft a plan that balances both sides of the debate.

Up until this point, Cooper has been sympathetic to the rationale for hikes in meetings and interviews. But as students begin to weigh in, Cooper has become aware of the difficult balance.

“At the end of the day, my job is to represent the students,” she said.

“But it’s a definite balance that I have to strike. I think the most important thing I can do is communicate between both sides.”

Although the UNC-system Board of Governors will not begin reviewing campus tuition proposals until next year, a memorandum sent by the system’s general administration Oct. 18 suggested increases above the 6.5 percent cap might be considered.

“That increase might mean students may not be able to come back to Chapel Hill next year,” Cooper said.

If an increase of $2,800 over a multi-year period is approved, Cooper said she would fight to keep the University’s financial aid commitments intact.

“My aid awarded this year is lower than it was last year, and the economy isn’t getting any better, so my family is having to fork out cash we weren’t expecting,” sophomore Katie Sheild said.

She said Cooper should suggest to administrators alternative ways to raise funds.

“I want her to make my voice heard,” Sheild said.

David Bevevino, 2009-10 student body vice president, said in an email that the student body president’s key role is as a communicator.

“The role of student government leaders as liaisons with the administration focuses on gathering information from administrators, soliciting feedback from student constituents and then using their best judgment to make decisions,” Bevevino said.

Cooper said she plans to hold focus group meetings this week with members of student government and a select group of students to discuss a plan of action.

“I understand that the quality of our education is affected by adverse budget cuts, and I know that tuition increases can help,” she said.

“But there becomes a point where the price gets too high.”

Bruce Carney, executive vice chancellor and provost, said the University has to increase tuition in order to improve faculty retention rates and maintain financial aid levels.

Carney said the University’s peer institutions — which were established for each UNC-system school by the Board of Governors in October — are a useful benchmark for setting tuition rates.

The most recent proposal would keep UNC within the bottom 25 percent of those peers in terms of cost.

But Cooper said she only supports raising tuition based on UNC’s need — not just because the University’s peers are doing so.

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Sophomore Sean Langberg said he doesn’t think Cooper has had students’ best interest in mind up to this point.

“I think (tuition increases) will ultimately limit access to certain demographics,” he said.

“If we want to continue University tradition of being affordable, we need to consider other options.”

Hogan Medlin, 2010-11 student body president, said in an email that because students pay tuition, administrators should not make the decision.

“Many people will compare us to peer institutions and say that our tuition is too low for the quality we provide,” Medlin said. “And though I agree, I also think that’s exactly the beauty of going to Carolina.”

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