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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Tuition set-aside preserves UNC’s accessibility, affordability

Since campus-based tuition increases began in 2000, Carolina has expressed an unwavering commitment to protect accessibility by setting aside a portion of tuition revenue for need-based aid. Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, spoke about why this funding is so important.

How important is the set-aside in preserving accessibility for qualified students?

Hugely important! The tuition set-aside gives us enough money each year to cover the tuition increase for students who qualify for need-based aid. The set-aside policy is the linchpin in the University’s efforts to keep Carolina accessible and affordable. 

And we are succeeding. Even with tuition increases, the debt burden of our undergraduates is lower now (in adjusted dollars) than it was in 2000, and the proportion of a student’s need met with grants is higher than ever.

This would be an entirely different story were we not permitted to use a share of new tuition revenue for need-based aid. If that policy were rescinded, access and affordability would plummet.

How much does Carolina set aside for need-based financial aid?

Currently, the University reserves 38 percent of each campus-based tuition increase for financial aid. Assuming our current policy continues, that would generate about $8.1 million for financial aid in 2013–14.

A year ago, the UNC Board of Governors considered capping the set-aside at 25 percent for UNC system campuses, but decided not to do that. How would a 25 percent cap have affected the ability of your office to meet students’ needs?

With a 25 percent cap, about 2,200 lower- and middle-income students would have lost a total of $3.3 million in need-based aid. Each would have had to borrow about $1,500 more this year, or be short of the money needed to pay their bill.

In light of reductions in federal aid and federal work-study funds in the past several years, has the tuition revenue set aside for need-based aid become even more vital?

Absolutely. Since the recession hit in 2008, Carolina has lost more than $6 million in federal and state grants for need-based aid. We made up some of that last year when lawmakers added some money to the state grant program, but we are still about $3.5 million short of where we used to be. These losses make it even more vital that we use a share of new tuition revenue to help needy students each year.

What percentage of undergraduate students qualify for need-based aid?

During 2008-09, when the recession began, 32 percent of our undergraduates qualified for need-based aid; today 42 percent qualify. College costs have risen faster than family income, and in many cases family income has been eroded due to unemployment or underemployment.

Carolina meets 100 percent of documented need-based aid for qualifying undergraduates who apply on time. Are you confident that we will be able to do that again next year?

Yes, at least for 2013-14, assuming that we can continue the tuition set-aside policy going forward. Protecting access to Carolina remains very, very important to our Board of Trustees and to senior administrators here at Carolina. But then again, there is the great unknown at the federal level with intensifying budgetary pressures.

How many other universities can match Carolina’s policy of meeting 100 percent of documented need?

Among our peer public universities, we proudly stand with the University of Virginia. But it is an increasing challenge for us both, I believe, particularly as more students qualify for aid each year. For Carolina, I think that kind of accessibility is a core part of our mission as a public university. It’s part of who we are.