In 1830, UNC-Chapel Hill was on the verge of ruin. The financial panic of 1825 dealt the University a fearful blow. The school owed money it had borrowed to build Old West, and work on Old East and Gerrard Hall. Revenue from tuition was diminishing as fewer students enrolled, and money from Western lands was no longer coming in.
The Board of Trustees felt that turning off professors would destroy the school’s prestige, so the board borrowed more money to meet their salaries. The board also did not want to raise tuition fees, which had been fixed at $30 per year, so they could “meet the wants of people of limited means.”
Almost 200 years later, the University is at a similar crossroads. The current economic climate has brought deep cuts from the state legislature. Professors’ salaries have been frozen for the past three years. The Board of Trustees is once again faced with sacrificing the prestige of the University or raising tuition and possibly making the school less accessible to North Carolinians.
On Nov. 17, the Board of Trustees approved a motion to raise tuition by 15.6 percent for in-state students over the course of five years. They said doing so was the only way to improve faculty retention rates and maintain the school’s prestige as a leading national university.
At other times in history, however, increases in tuition were fought at all costs.
In 1961, William Friday, the first president of the UNC System, successfully convinced the Consolidated University Board of Trustees to not pass a $25 increase on in-state tuition, which would have made the yearly tuition $175.
Friday says the reason he was so vehemently against tuition hikes throughout his 30 years as system president, and still is today, is because he believes the University was chartered to be accessible to all North Carolinians. The state constitution says that higher education should be as free as practical for the citizens of North Carolina.
In February 1971, Friday said that if the University ever reaches the point where students who can’t afford the tuition don’t even apply, then the University will have “ceased in (its) reason for being.”
Friday says he does not believe the University has reached this critical point yet, but he has noticed lately a shift in burden from the legislature to the students, and he feels the current proposal is excessive.
But he also says he believes the people will recognize the importance of UNC-CH in North Carolina and see to it that its budget is reinstated.
“(UNC-CH) has been through storms like this before. We did it in the 1960s. Those were hard times,” Friday says. “It will come through again and adversity is a good teacher.”
However, others worry that this trend is here to stay. Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at UNC-CH, says he thinks budget cuts have already begun eroding the University’s role in North Carolina and in the South. He says UNC-CH has historically had a long-standing and unique connection to “the soil and to the people” of the region.
“Nobody writes books about LSU or Ole Miss or the University of Michigan the way they do about UNC,” Guillory says. “The history of devotion and loyalty to (North Carolina and the South) is just amazing.”
One of the biggest champions of this tradition was former University president Edward K. Graham who declared in his 1915 inaugural address that UNC-CH was “the instrument of democracy for realizing all high and healthful aspirations of the state.”
Graham sought to make the University a servant of the needs of the state in developing economic and social resources. He launched a program to link the school’s activities with public health, city and country planning, rural economics and civic problems. Graham also began providing courses that correlated with state needs in subject areas like rural social economics and rural education.
Years later, the University upholds this tradition with organizations such as the Carolina Center for Public Service. The CCPS’s mission is to bring UNC-CH faculty, students and staff together to meet the needs of North Carolina and beyond.
A majority of UNC-CH’s peer institutions have become so disconnected from their home states that they have undergone what Gene Nichol, a professor at UNC School of Law, describes as the quasi-privatization of public schools.
“UNC-CH is a real public university that takes its obligations to the state with the utmost seriousness,” Nichol says. “A lot of public universities don’t do that anymore.”
He pointed to the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia and the University of California, Berkeley as models of public universities that are becoming as much like private universities as they can. Nichol says the trend is “hugely devastating” to the country.
He says he feels that UNC-CH is quickly dismantling and following suit, and Guillory has similar concerns.
“What I worry about is that in this era of economic tightness,” Guillory says, “we’ll make decisions and five, 10 years from now we’ll say, ‘Wow what have we done to ourselves? What happened to us?’” He also says he’s concerned about the effects tuition hikes will have on future funding for the University.
“If you raise tuition on the assumption that the legislature is going to reduce funding,” says Guillory. “You almost give them permission to cut our budget again.”
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE CLASS
Nichol says UNC-CH’s legacy of low tuition is in jeopardy right now, which he says is “hugely unfortunate.”
“Carolina has led the country in its commitment to what a public university is,” Nichol says. “Low tuition has not only been part of constitutional mandate, but it’s been the lifeblood of this institution.”
Since 1995, in-state tuition has gone up 408 percent, while total cost of attendance for an in-state student has gone up 154 percent. Total cost of attendance as a percentage of the median family income of an in-state student has gone from 11 percent in 1995-1996 to 19 percent in 2010-2011.
The median income for an in-state UNC-CH family has gone up by 48 percent since 1995, while the median income for the average North Carolina family has only gone up by 39 percent, showing that on average UNC-CH families are more affluent compared to North Carolina families from 16 years ago.
Guillory says a big problem UNC-CH is facing right now is the alienation of the middle class. Very affluent families can afford high-priced higher education, and on the other end of the spectrum there are programs such as Carolina Covenant Scholars, which gives aids to students who are at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.
“But what happens to middle class students? Those who are not affluent enough to afford the tuition but aren’t in dire situations?” Guillory asks.
He says the current situation has been forcing some of his students to work two or three jobs. He suspects that others will just forgo Chapel Hill to attend a less expensive state school.
“You can argue that you don’t have a right to go to UNC-CH, you can go to UNC-Wilmington,” he says. “But we ought to have a student body at Chapel Hill that reflects the wingspan of our society. And so you don’t want to turn people away simply because of sticker shock.”
Many proponents of tuition hikes have pointed to peer institutions’ higher tuition rates as a justification of those hikes. However, a paper by John Sanders, former director of UNC’s School of Government, points to the fact that the constitution does not speak to the costs of North Carolina institutions in comparison with their national peers. It addresses North Carolina’s institutions in isolation and stipulates that they should be within the financial reach of the people of North Carolina.
According to the latest census data, North Carolina is the 42nd wealthiest state out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. It is ranked lower than other states with comparable public universities: Virginia is the sixth wealthiest, California the 12th and Michigan follows in 30th place. The goal of keeping institutions “within the financial reach of the people of North Carolina” is not in sync with keeping tuition in line with peer institutions.
Student Body Vice President Zealan Hoover agrees that UNC-CH should not be compared with peer institutions when looking at tuition rates. However, he says that in five years UNC-CH will still be in the bottom quartile of peer institutions in terms of in-state tuition rates. The University might be at the top of the quartile in five years, but it is expected that peer institutions will raise tuition rates even more during this time period, he says.
Hoover, Guillory and Nichol all say they understand why tuition must be raised. But they hope that this will only be a temporary solution to the problem.
“It might be that we have to raise the tuition cap for a short time,” Guillory says. “But I don’t think we should give up on the state legislature in terms of funding the University. We can’t give up on them.”
“And so it may be hard right now, but we need to work our way through this without giving up the ‘publicness’ of a great public university.”