Since the 2008-2009 school year, in-state undergraduate students have seen tuition increase by 59 percent, adjusted for inflation.
For in-state, or resident, graduate students, the change jumps to 77 percent. But since 2017, resident undergraduates have seen a decline in tuition rates, while all other groups have relatively constant tuition rates.
The overall tuition increases align with a documented trend in higher education since the 1980s. From 2007 to 2009, America experienced the Great Recession, which Vice Chancellor of Finance and Operations Jonathan Pruitt credited with the largest tuition increases of the past decade.
“Especially when you look at the amount of student debt, I think young people are starting to figure out that’s not sustainable and the pressure that puts on them after they finish school,” said North Carolina Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe. “They’re questioning whether or not higher education is a sound economic investment, and we don’t want young people thinking that way.”
Although the costs appear to level off around 2016 for all groups, paying for college remains a key policy priority for many members of the General Assembly. Tuition is approved by the legislature, but UNC plays a large role in setting the rates.
This process begins at the Tuition and Fee Advisory Task Force, of which Pruitt is a co-chairperson. After reviewing and proposing tuition and fee increases, the chancellor and executive vice chancellor and provost finalize the tuition for the Board of Trustees.
At the Nov. 20 BOT meeting, the proposed tuition and fee increases for the 2020-21 school year were presented for final on-campus approval. Over the next four months, the Board of Governors is set to approve the tuition and fees, pending final approval from the legislature.
Members of the legislature have voiced concern over the tuition increases, including Sen. Erica Smith, D-Beaufort, and Van Duyn. This concern is prevalent at the national level as well, evidenced by Pew Research Center report showing “improving the educational system” at the top tier of public priorities.
“What we have done over the years is we have shifted the burden of paying for the universities from the legislature to the students,” Van Duyn said. “When I went to college from 1969 to 1973, you could earn enough in a summer job to pay tuition and fees at a public university.”
These two senators, along with Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, proposed a solution in May 2016: a fixed tuition policy. The bill guaranteed the cost of tuition would remain the same for students from commencement to graduation. This version of the bill was not the final one voted on — which Waddell and Van Duyn credited to being members of the minority party — but the same concept of a fixed tuition policy was sponsored by state Republicans and implemented in fall 2016.
For the first-year students who entered UNC in 2016, the semester tuition was $3,440.50, and that rate, according to the policy, has not changed — even for inflation.
“We thought that this was a workable solution to the problem of people starting college and then not being able to finish because of increases that happened before they were able to finish their degrees,” Van Duyn said.
A year after the implementation of the fixed tuition policy, the tuition rates for incoming resident undergraduates decreased by 3.5 percent to its current rate of about $3,509.50. The semester tuition of $3,509.50 has remained constant from 2017-18 until 2019-20, so adjusting for inflation actually presents a decline in tuition. Furthermore, for all student groups (undergraduate and graduate residents and non-residents), fees have not kept up with inflation and therefore have decreased since 2008.
Pruitt sees these decreases in fees as a success.
“There’s a strong commitment to affordability in general by the University, and I think you can see that in fees over time,” Pruitt said. “UNC-Chapel Hill is one of the only schools in the system that decreased fees the last two consecutive years.”
After adjusting for inflation, semester fees have decreased by $51.28 since the 2017-18 school year for undergraduates, and $50.18 for graduates.
However, for 2020-21, tuition and fees will increase again. For in-state undergraduates, semester tuition will increase by $105.50 and $667.50 for out-of-state undergraduates. Resident and non-resident graduate student semester tuition will increase by $158.50. Semester fee increases for undergraduates and graduates will be $16.44 and $17.18, respectively.
Smith said the focus on decreasing tuition is not where it needs to be and said she would like to see the General Assembly cut tuition rates.
Van Duyn’s concern stems from the majority party’s focus on cutting tax rates. She said every single year she’s been in office, the General Assembly has passed corporate tax cuts. Having lower taxes sounds good in theory, she said, but it results in a weakened ability for the state to cover education costs.
“We’ve taken the approach that the way to keep businesses interested in North Carolina is to cut their taxes, but when businessmen talk to me, they are not worried about taxes so much as they are worried about having an educated and trained workforce,” Van Duyn said. “I am concerned that we are putting systemic brakes on our ability to keep our education systems robust.”
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