Debate heats up on tuition

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 14, 2014

RALEIGH — The current University of North Carolina Board of Governors, the 34-member body that helps set policy for all UNC system campuses, is not a big fan of using a slice of tuition paid by some students to supplement the tuition of others.
In 2012-13, about $126 million in tuition payments went toward helping pay the tuition of poorer students. The figure represents about 10 percent of tuition payments.
So far, the board has not decided to change the practice.
They do appear poised to beginning requiring campuses to send an accounting of tuition costs to parents and/or students. It would show how much of the tuition payment goes to faculty salaries, how much pays for other costs of running the campus and may identify how much state taxpayers supplement all students attending the schools.
But is that just a first step?
Some of these 34 (no simple 15- or 20-member board will do when it comes to university matters) were quite upset to learn about this tuition money being sliced off to help needy students.

What their outrage ignores is that state taxpayers, rich and poor, have always subsidized university tuition for all students. In return, North Carolina has enjoyed a skilled workforce that attracts business investment, allowing for a modern economy that creates wealth for business owners and wage earners alike.
The complaints also tend to disregard the huge swirl that is university financing, with federal grants, federal tuition aid, various state pools of money, and charitable foundation dollars all feeding into university operations.
Meanwhile, the debate should take into account that the traditional source of need-based financial aid in the state, North Carolina’s unclaimed property fund, is drying up after years of legislators grabbing the principal as well as earned interest.
From 2010 until 2012, legislators plucked between $137 million and $166 million in principal from the unclaimed property fund to pay for need-based tuition.
Last year, they could afford to take only $50 million in principal.
The good old days of heavily relying on unclaimed property to pay for the state’s share of need-based scholarships are likely over.
So, unless our public universities are going to become smaller and more elite, someone has to pay for need-based aid.

That’s not to suggest that state leaders should back away from making low tuition a priority, for the same aforementioned reason of creating a skilled, knowledgeable workforce and to provide economic opportunity for all.
And there is nothing wrong with more transparency.
In fact, the Board of Governors ought to be ensuring that the student fees that now total $1,000 or more a year at some schools contain a complete accounting like that which they propose for tuition bills.
After all, parents and students should fully understand that they also are subsidizing coaches’ salaries, athletic facility renovations and even golfing green fees.
While they are at it, board members might want to check on whether some of their own golf outings are being subsidized by those fees.
Scott Mooneyham writes columns for Capitol Press Association.