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The Daily Tar Heel

A critical moment for the University

In this column space yesterday, you read a column from Mark Laichena, who reminded you that even though the Board of Trustees voted to raise UNC’s in-state tuition by 40 percent during the next five years, the tuition debate isn’t over.

Today, the UNC-system Board of Governors will continue the discussion of tuition and fees. The conversation will extend to all 17 schools in North Carolina’s university system and the decisions at stake are larger than any single student’s tuition bill.

Four years of budget cuts have challenged the balance between quality and affordability that has long been the University’s favorite bragging right. Wary of admitting publicly that the quality of our education is decreasing, those with the power to shape policy pretend we aren’t caught in a dangerous dependence on short-term fixes to a much longer-term problem.

Each year, the budget of each campus in the UNC system depends on the priorities of the state legislature, whose allegiances and ideals shift with each election. Reacting to the legislature’s budget cuts by increasing tuition again and again will never break this cycle, particularly in years of economic fragility.

Without a long-term commitment to affordability and accessibility for all academically qualified students, UNC will remain caught in this cycle.

It is easy to call ourselves the University of the People during years of budget stability, but the values we purport to hold are measured and tested by our commitment to them during hardship.

The “higher tuition, higher financial aid” model has become the default at many colleges and universities across the country. But this hinders diversity: a high sticker price lets a high school freshman assume a college education is beyond his or her grasp. Once in college, many middle-class students have to restrict their dedication to educational or campus life when scheduling time to “be a student” around part-time jobs.

That fewer and fewer of these students will be on our campus decreases the value and the benefit of a college education for all of us, regardless of how much we receive in financial aid.

At UNC’s bicentennial celebration, alumnus and renowned broadcast journalist Charles Kuralt said, “Our love for this place is based upon the fact that it is and was meant to be, the University of the People… We can read again the words on its seal — ‘light and liberty’ — and say the University of North Carolina has lived by those two short, noble words and say that in all of the American story there is no other place like this.”

The second part of that quote is rarely referenced. This morning, the board will discuss tuition plans that will affect the system’s ability to remain an exceptional and unique element of the American story of higher education.

We will continue to work with other students and student body presidents across the UNC system, but this morning, the board will meet in our backyard.

Once all of the plans are presented, as a student, as your elected voice and as a firm believer in the value of the accessibility of higher education, I will support the plan that best maintains access to UNC-CH and all other campuses.

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