Harry Painter, an analyst at the right-leaning Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said the system’s tuition level is an artificial phenomenon.
“The costs of attending school at UNC institutions are actually comparable to costs elsewhere, but they are shifted to the taxpayers,” he said in an email.
Callan said his group measures affordability by taking the sum of the state’s median family income and all financial grant aid acquired, finding the proportion of income needed to send someone to a two- or four-year college, and then determining whether that proportion is going up over time.
“Just because North Carolina has declined less doesn’t mean they haven’t lost ground,” Callan said. “From 2006 to 2012, the percent of family income it took to send someone to college increased from 13 percent to 18 percent.”
The percentage of family income required to send a student to Category 1 colleges — which include public four-year universities — increased from 15 percent to 21 percent in that time, Callan said.
Callan said North Carolina offers strong support through financial aid. He said tuition is increasing too fast for aid to have a substantial impact.
The problems with tuition hikes can’t be solved with financial aid alone, he said.
“You’ve got to constrain the rate of tuition increase — it shouldn’t go up much faster than median family income,” he said.
Painter said if the UNC system cleaned up excess spending, it would not have to raise students’ tuition.
One recent example of controlling costs, Painter said, involves redirecting $15 million from the system’s 237 research centers and institutes. State lawmakers instructed the UNC Board of Governors to consider distributing that money to distinguished professorships and the system’s strategic plan.
“While North Carolina has done better than many other states, this is no time to declare a victory on this issue,” Callan said. “It’s still a serious problem, and it’s a serious problem for low-income students.”