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The Daily Tar Heel

Crunch time for tuition increases

Remember the $800 in-state tuition increase announced last fall, with thousands more in increases planned over the next five years?

It isn’t set in stone yet. For students concerned about the risks it poses for public education at UNC — and you should be — the coming days and weeks are crucial.

But dwell too long in the post-holiday blues or over-celebrate returning to the Hill, and the decision period will pass us by.

This semester, the UNC-system Board of Governors must decide whether to accept UNC’s tuition proposal and others from each of the 17 campuses, or reject them and offer its own budget. Their first tuition discussion this year is on Thursday at 11 a.m., with a final vote in mid-February.

With members of the Board of Governors coming from across the state, this week’s meeting will be one of the few times students can turn up and show they care about public education.

When I watch friends struggling to get the classes they need to graduate on time, and when we all worry about the value of our degree in a rough job market, it can seem imperative to raise funds by any means — especially if it will help retain top faculty and add sections.

But there are clear detrimental effects, too. Higher tuition increases the burden on students taking out loans or working part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Student Body President Mary Cooper shared stories at the Board of Trustees meeting in November from middle-class students being priced out by rapid tuition increases.

And even if UNC can keep meeting 100 percent of demonstrated need today, that generous offering is by no means a certainty in the future. In the longer term, offering sufficient financial aid to meet rising tuition requires ever more money from a cash-strapped state government.

But as I wrote last fall, there are other reasons to be concerned about what the tuition increase signifies, even if it isn’t about to hit your own pocket.

Shifting the burden for funding UNC and other system schools from the state to the students who attend and their families threatens the essence of our public institution.

It changes those to whom the university is accountable and threatens to erode two centuries of leadership by North Carolina in public higher education.

Past state leaders founded the nation’s first public university and committed in the state constitution to provide free higher education as far as practicable.

And the University has adopted a mission to serve more than just the students who attend.

One hundred years ago, UNC president Edward Kidder Graham “hoped to make the campus co-extensive with the boundaries of the state.” More recently, former system President Bill Friday challenged students to “pay back” the education they had received in service to the state.

It seems a tragedy to leave that legacy behind and drift toward becoming a private university in all but name.

So consider coming to the meeting in Spangler Center tomorrow. Today there will be students at Hunger Lunch, in the pit or Union 2518, explaining how you can come along or learn more.

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