Tuition Autonomy for Research Universities Draws Criticism

The question of whether on certain issues North Carolina’s two research universities should be considered apart from the 16-campus UNC System has resurfaced with the N.C. Senate’s approval of a provision to enable Carolina and N.C. State to set their own tuition.

The provision, which South Building administrators said was not initiated by them, was soundly criticized by UNC System President Molly Broad and some members of the UNC System Board of Governors and by former system President William Friday ’48 (LLB).

Speaking to The News & Observer of Raleigh, which examined the issue, BOG Chair Brad Wilson said such a change was “a slippery slope. In my opinion, it’s not in the best interest of North Carolina.” Broad said it would harm the BOG’s “fiscal authority and ability to plan for and govern the university effectively.”

Currently, campuses may initiate their own tuition increases, but the UNC System Board of Governors’ approval is required. The BOG placed a freeze on in-state tuition increases for all the campuses for the coming academic year.

In similar conversations over the years, some state officials have warned that changes that separate some campuses from the whole would be steps toward a breakdown of the system, which could lead to a chaotic mishmash of separate funding mechanisms. Carolina and N.C. State were granted the authority to set their own tuition for one year in 1995.

The state’s newspapers generally have been critical of the tuition autonomy provision. Partly in response to editorials, Richard “Stick” Williams ’75, chair of the UNC Board of Trustees, said in May that Chapel Hill has no intention of becoming separate from the UNC System. He said further that Carolina remains committed for in-state students to be charged the lowest possible tuition – which Carolina generally defines as being within the bottom 25 percentile of tuition among its peer public universities across the country.

At the same time, Williams said that while Carolina has succeeded in attracting research grants and in building its endowment through private fundraising, it is in an intense competition with other schools for research funds and for faculty. Those cannot be funded adequately through the existing state model, he said.

Also in the Senate budget is a provision, which would affect all UNC System schools, to grant in-state tuition rates to all merit scholarship recipients and scholarship athletes. This would help solve one problem: Athletics booster clubs that pay for athletics scholarships and foundations that sponsor academic scholarships would get a significant break on the amount of money it costs to run their programs.

The Morehead Foundation has said it would be able to add 10 scholarships if it could fund nonresidents at the in-state tuition rate. Forty-three Moreheads were awarded this year.

But, as The N&O reported, that would leave the universities to come up with the funds to compensate for the loss of the much higher out-of-state tuitions. The provision in the budget says that state money wouldn’t be available to compensate.

Broad was unhappy with this idea. “We already are challenged to provide adequate need-based financial aid to qualified North Carolina students,” she said. “Any move that would divert scarce campus dollars to nonresident students without demonstrated financial need is completely inconsistent with historic state and university policy.”

The N.C. House was expected to take up the matter in its budget deliberations sometime in June.

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