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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Ross seeks to balance quality, affordability for UNC system

UNC President Tom Ross told members of the Board of Governors on Jan. 12 that his recommendations for campus tuition and fee increases will balance the need to protect the quality of the UNC system with holding true to North Carolina’s constitutional imperative to keep tuition as “free as practicable.”

Threading that needle is difficult during tough economic times when both state government and students’ families feel the impact of belt tightening.

During the past four years, the UNC system has seen a net reduction of $482 million.

Because of sensitivity to the financial hardship of mounting college expenses on students’ families, Ross said, he planned to recommend tuition and fee increases for each campus that would be significantly lower than the requests campuses already have submitted to the BOG for consideration.

Ross said his recommendations to the BOG would represent an average system-wide increase below the average 9.3 percent increase seen across the 17-campus system for the 2011–12 academic year. Recommendations for tuition and fee hikes for any campus would not exceed 10 percent, he added.

Furthermore, Ross said he would also recommend that the BOG not approve tuition and fee increases beyond the next two years, limiting average increases to less than $250 per semester for the first year and less than $150 per semester for the second year.

Ross’ announcement, in effect, narrows the window on the one-time opportunity UNC General Administration gave system campuses to raise in-state undergraduate tuition beyond the 6.5 percent cap – provided the school could justify the need for such an increase.

By limiting both the number of years and the annual amount tuition could be raised, Ross’ proposal would restrict campuses’ ability to generate revenue. Ross acknowledged as much when he explained that his recommendations would generate less than $50 million, equaling less than 15 percent of state cuts to the UNC system last year.

Carolina’s Board of Trustees, for example, has forwarded a proposal to increase tuition by $2,800 – or 40 percent – over the next five years. The proposal would have generated an additional $27.28 million in revenue, including what the University sets aside to support need-based financial aid.

Ross’ pledge to keep increases below 10 percent would mean “a haircut of about $100” for Carolina, Chancellor Holden Thorp told the Faculty Council on Jan. 13.

“The BOG members are very meticulous when it comes to thinking about access to higher education and are reluctant to raise tuition,” he said, “but they also are mindful that the quality of the whole UNC system needs to be maintained. I think we’re heading in a good direction.”

The GA directive from last year required campuses to remain in the bottom quartile of their public peers, and Ross pledged that his recommendations would do the same.

Ross said the UNC system has been a national leader in seeking ways to become more efficient even before the national economy began to falter in 2007. Those efforts must continue, along with ongoing efforts to increase private support and maintain strong taxpayer support, as well as by asking students’ families to pay more.

“One thing that cries out is the desire for stability,” Ross said. “We want to make sure the permanent bleeding is stopped so we are able to move forward as a great university.”

BOC Chair Hannah Gage said raising tuition is difficult – and always should be. “It should not be easy when we have the kind of constitution that we have,” she said. “It should be bumpy and contentious and emotional.”

Gage added, “This is a process that brings out the worst and the best in us, but in the end, I hope we can find a path that allows us to come together.”