This column is part of a series written by seniors from the pilot senior seminar on American citizenship. The class is led by its students, whose interests and experiences are as diverse as their areas of study. These columns are their lessons.
During tuition discussions at the UNC-system Board of Governors meeting this month, a student spoke of the jobs she holds to pay tuition, and a board member responded that he too had worked his way through UNC. I was impressed, but I desperately wished I could point out that his comparison to today’s students no longer holds.
While helping Student Body President Mary Cooper present her tuition plan to the UNC Board of Trustees this fall, I often vented my frustrations to my dad, a 1980 UNC graduate.
Though many trustees sympathized with students — because, they proudly proclaimed, they also worked their way through college — I had a hunch they were comparing apples and oranges. After some back-of-the-envelope calculations, my dad found why the trustees’ declarations rang false.
My dad is a hippie who attended seven colleges in eight years, and by 1976, he was playing the banjo in a bluegrass band, working in a furniture factory in Mt. Airy and attending Surry Community College. When he left the factory and transferred to UNC, he was making $2.45 an hour. (And though my dad wandered around Alaska and lived in a truck for a while, he ended up at Wharton, so I trust his numbers.)
In 1976, minimum wage rose to $2.30 an hour, and in-state tuition and fees at UNC were $270 per semester. Before taxes, it took 235 hours of minimum-wage labor to pay for a year at UNC.
Next year, in-state tuition and fees will be $7,499.81, and minimum wage is $7.25. It now takes half a year of full-time work to earn a year’s worth of tuition. That’s five times as many hours of work as it took students like my dad to pay for UNC 35 years ago.
It was still challenging for my dad to work his way through school, and I don’t want to imply that previous generations aren’t worthy of admiration for their hard work. They deserve praise for envisioning UNC as a financially accessible place (although attainable only for white men for most of the school’s history).
Students from across the state, including banjo players in Mt. Airy, recognized that UNC was within their grasp, and they used the education they received to make their state and country better.
We must recognize that working your way through UNC is a much harder undertaking than before.
I would love for my children to attend UNC 35 years from now. But if it will cost their generation five times as many hours of work as it does today, in-state students will pay $76,560 a year, plus inevitable inflation.
Few students will be able to spend 10 years working full-time to earn four years of tuition, and even those who can afford UNC will have a very different experience than previous generations.
With that student body, UNC would no longer be truly public. That generation of Tar Heels would be the worse for it.
The generations before us climbed the ladder, but we can’t let them pull it up behind them. Even with an increased emphasis on financial aid, we must frame tuition in terms of the real wages of students and their families.
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