Carolina has long been a leader in providing access to high-achieving students, regardless of their financial circumstances, while maintaining academic excellence. This was affirmed as recently as December, when Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 participated in a White House meeting on college affordability led by President Barack Obama. Of the dozen higher education leaders, Thorp was the only public university CEO whose institution is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities.
This White House was particularly interested in the Carolina Covenant and Carolina Counts. The covenant – conceived by Shirley Ort, director of UNC scholarships and student aid – provides a debt free education to qualified students; Carolina Counts has implemented efficiencies that are saving UNC $50 million a year. The White House was also interested in UNC’s National College Advising Corps, which hires recent graduates to be full-time advisers in underserved high schools. It was conceived and launched by Stephen Farmer, vice provost and director of undergraduate admissions.
The UNC System Board of Governors will act soon on proposals from system campuses to increase tuition. As the Legislature continues to cut the percentage of state appropriations for higher education, many North Carolinians worry the state may be abandoning its 218-year commitment to provide a world-class education to North Carolina’s best students.
The proposed $2,800 increase in Carolina’s undergraduate tuition, to be implemented over five years, would help preserve Carolina’s academic quality. As UNC System President Emeritus Erskine Bowles ’67 has asserted: “Low tuition without high quality is no bargain for anyone.” Even with the increase, Carolina would remain in the bottom quartile of its peers in tuition.
Among UNC’s peer public institutions, Carolina is one of only two providing 100 percent of documented financial need. A recent report showed that, even taking inflation into account, the indebtedness of UNC students has declined an average of $2,500 in the past 12 years.
Ort has observed a need “to dispel the myth that only low-income students receive financial aid at our institution.” For every Covenant Scholar enrolled at Carolina, there are three middle-income students receiving need-based aid. And despite recent tuition increases, the 35 percent of students who borrow leave UNC with an average of $15, 472 in cumulative undergraduate debt.
Carolina has met every fiscal challenge in its path – cutting costs through Carolina Counts and, as Ort explains, becoming a national leader in helping students pay for college and allowing them to graduate with little or no debt.
It’s time for the N.C. General Assembly to meet its challenge. Legislators have struggled since 2008 to balance the state budget, cutting higher education even as it continue to be a proven investment: The unemployment rate of those with college degrees is less than 4 percent; for those without, it’s more than 14 percent. The state cuts put much at stake, including UNC’s No. 1 source of funds: research grants. UNC earned $800 million in research funding last year – funding that not only focuses on solving the world’s greatest problems but also generates jobs across North Carolina. Since 1989-90, research funding has increased an average of 9 percent a year: over that period, state appropriations have increased 3.7 percent a year, to $535 million last year; tuition and fees, 10.3 percent a year, to $363 million; and private gifts and grants, 8.5 percent a year, to $277 million. In fact, alumni have remained remarkably supportive in doing their part. Last year, with the exception of the final year of the Carolina First campaign, private giving was greater than in any previous year.
Those research dollars are at stake, in part, because since July 2008, the state has provided no funds for salary increases. In that period, Carolina has moved from winning two-thirds of the battles to retain faculty to losing two-thirds of them. Carolina has retained U.S. News & World Report’s overall ranking at No. 29 and remains a top five public university, but is has fallen from No. 35 in faculty resources two years ago to No. 59 this year.
During the economic downturn in the early 1990s, legislators urged UNC to become less dependent on state appropriations. Clearly, Carolina has. Twenty-five years ago, 43 percent of UNC’s budget came from the state; a decade ago that was down to 29 percent and, as of this past year, it was 19.5 percent. From fiscal year 2008-09 through this fiscal year, cumulative cuts in state appropriations to UNC have been $231.5 million.
We face serious questions: How can we remain faithful to the often-referenced constitutional mandate for low tuition? How can we retain and recruit top faculty? How can UNC be UNC with a still-declining portion of the state budget appropriated to higher education? What of our expectation that private gifts won’t simply replace what should be legislative support? And what of our commitment to keep Carolina accessibly to all who can earn admission, regardless of their finances?
There are no easy answers. But if this state is to retain its world-class public research university, the N.C. General Assembly must increase its investment here. Nowhere can taxpayers make a commitment of public funds that provides the returns that Carolina generates.
Yours at Carolina,
Douglas S. Dibbert ’70