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Year in Review: Potential in-state tuition hike of 15.6 percent for UNC to be voted on in February

The University’s Board of Trustees approved a 15.6 percent tuition hike for in-state students in November, despite vocal student protest.

The proposal, passed with one dissenting vote from Student Body President Mary Cooper, would increase in-state tuition by at least $2,800 during the next five years.

The board rejected a proposal from Cooper to delay the vote until December and craft a more moderate proposal. Cooper had proposed a 6.4 percent increase for in-state students coupled with higher tuition rates for incoming students.

Vocal protesters, led first by Students for a Democratic Society but joined by members of the Campus Y and others, sat in on several meetings, holding up signs and chanting “shame” at administrators.

Protesters urged administrators to consider drawing from the University’s endowment to alleviate the effects of budget cuts. But administrators countered by saying the vast majority of the endowment is limited by donors’ wishes.

Last year, UNC lost more than $100 million in state funding, causing it to cut some departments as much as 32 percent.

The unprecedented hikes were part of a trend of similar proposed increases across the UNC-system, in many cases exceeding the Board of Governors’ 6.5 percent cap.

A new Four Year Tuition Plan approved by the board last year maintained that cap, but it also included a “catch up” clause permitting universities to bring tuition more in line with their public peer institutions — as long as they remain within the bottom quarter of their peers’ tuition and fee rates.

All UNC-system schools must submit their tuition increase proposals to the system’s General Administration by Friday. The board will vote on the proposals in February before sending recommendations to the N.C. General Assembly for final approval.

Brad Wilson, emeritus member and former chairman of the board, said any tuition increase proposal above the cap will receive scrutiny from the board, even if the university would remain in the bottom quarter of its peers’ tuition and fees.

Approval of increases beyond the cap could begin to undermine the goals of predictability and stability outlined in the board’s new tuition plan, he said.

“Anytime you have a policy and you start making more exceptions, then the exception becomes the rule,” he said.

University administrators are looking to tuition as a source of revenue after sustaining more than $1 billion in state funding cuts during the last five years. A cut of 15.6 percent, or $414 million, prompted universities to eliminate about 3,000 filled positions and hundreds of course sections this year.

The potential tuition hikes would be phased in during a difficult economic period for families in the state. North Carolina’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 10.4 percent.

Board members will consider the impact of increases on families in their tuition discussions, said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the board. The N.C. Constitution states that system schools must provide a free university education to state residents “as far as practicable.”

“We can talk about keeping our competitive edge, and we can frame each campus’ tuition in the context of their public peers,” Gage said. “But if you’re a North Carolina family that can’t afford the tuition, you could care less if Carolina says we’re below Virginia.”

As administrators aim to strike a balance between the academic quality and affordability of institutions, Gage said the system will lobby to restore state funding next year. Legislators opted to sunset a one-penny sales tax and cut other parts of the budget to close a deficit of $2.4 billion this year.

Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, said he expects state revenues to improve after the Republican majority’s efforts to balance the budget and allow taxes to expire. Revenue in the state’s General Fund is expected to register about 3 percent growth in fiscal year 2011, according to analysis by the Office of State Budget and Management.

“I hope the worst is behind us, and that we’ll be able to get back to more of the full state funding,” Stevens said. “I don’t know that will necessarily mean there won’t be any tuition increases.”

Gage said university administrators must be wary of a slippery slope with regard to tuition increases.

“I don’t think anybody on our board wants to look back in a decade and realize that this was the point where the University of North Carolina began its steady decline,” she said.

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