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Board of Governors to ?nalize tuition debate

Amid an array of conflicting opinions on tuition hikes — ranging from zero to double-digit increases — the UNC-system Board of Governors is expected to end a divisive tuition debate Friday.

University administrators across the system submitted substantial tuition hike proposals to the board in December, including an 11.4 percent increase in tuition and fees for UNC-CH that sparked student protests.

UNC-system President Thomas Ross then released his proposal late last month, recommending an average increase of 8.8 percent systemwide for in-state undergraduates.

The board will hold committee meetings today before voting on the proposals Friday.

Ross’ plan proposes a 9.9 percent increase for UNC-CH, one of 15 schools that proposed hikes above the board’s 6.5 percent cap. That cap was mandated in the board’s second Four-Year Tuition Plan approved in 2010, but it also permits board members to approve higher increases if a campus demonstrates a need.

Board Chairwoman Hannah Gage said this year’s tuition discussions have been unprecedented in terms of the diversity of opinions offered by board members.

“This is the hardest tuition year we’ve ever had in the decade that I’ve been on this board,” Gage said.

“It’s never been as difficult. We’ve never had as wide a spread on our board in what people thought we should do.”

Ross informed board members in an email Tuesday about amendments to his tuition proposal. In the email, Ross said he no longer recommended two-year increases for non-resident students.

The amended proposal reflects a back-and-forth among board members about the proper role for out-of-state tuition. Some board members have advocated shifting more of the tuition burden to out-of-state students, while others have expressed concern that higher rates would deter out-of-state students from enrolling.

Gage said Ross didn’t want the board to make “an emotional decision” about nonresident tuition. She expects board members to follow historical tradition and approve Ross’ proposal.

“I think we will successfully find a middle ground that gives the campuses some stability for the next two years,” Gage said.

Following a petition signed by 21 former board members opposed to tuition hikes that was presented to the board earlier this month, the board received another statement of opposition Monday from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for affordability at universities.

The letter questioned Ross’ willingness to propose tuition increases above 6.5 percent and urged board members to press campuses to become more efficient.

Growth in administrative spending has outpaced instructional spending at a majority of UNC-system schools in recent years, according to the letter, but Gage said schools have to balance operating more efficiently with providing quality services.

A cut of 15.6 percent, or $414 million, in state funding last year prompted universities to eliminate about 3,000 filled positions and hundreds of course sections.

“There’s that fine line between being truly efficient and then being so thinly staffed that you cannot deliver the kind of educational experience that students want and deserve,” Gage said.

Once the board approves a set of tuition increases for campuses, the proposal will be sent to the N.C. General Assembly for final approval. Legislators have historically supported the board’s recommendations.

Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland and a member of the N.C. House appropriations subcommittee on education, said he supports Ross’ tuition proposal. Legislators will convene for a short session in May to vote on the increases and other adjustments to the state budget.

Glazier said the funding outlook for universities remains uncertain this year despite early estimates that the state will collect about $130 million more in revenue than projections for 2011. Multi-million dollar shortfalls for Medicaid and preschool funding could translate into more cuts for universities, he said.

The Republican leadership also opted to sunset a temporary one-penny sales tax in last year’s budget that would have generated about $1 billion in revenue for the state. Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has proposed reinstating three-quarters of that sales tax to mitigate education cuts.

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N.C. Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake and co-chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, said that while he hopes to restore some funding to universities in upcoming budgetary negotiations, the legislature’s majority will likely not seek to raise taxes if the state’s unemployment rate remains as high as 9.9 percent.

“I don’t anticipate tax increases during an economic downturn,” he said.

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