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UNC president wants to talk about higher-ed money

RALEIGH – After years of tuition increases at colleges and cuts in state funding, now is the time to talk about whether North Carolina’s philosophy toward higher education has changed, the president of the University of North Carolina system said.

North Carolina’s constitution demands the state provide affordable higher education. The News & Observer of Raleigh reports that 20 years ago, state government provided 81 percent of the money for the UNC system. Last year, the total was less than 64 percent. Meanwhile, tuition has climbed 175 percent in the past decade. An in-state undergrad at North Carolina State University paid $1,861 in tuition then. That same student pays $5,153 now.

“If you look at the amount of tuition increase we’ve already seen, the budget cuts we’ve already had and these next cuts, we’re really talking about a different philosophical approach to higher education,” UNC system President Tom Ross told the newspaper. “We shouldn’t go down a road like that without significant debate, because it has huge implications for the future of the state and the health of its economy.”

The rapid tuition increases are also catching the attention of student government leaders.

“I’m afraid of this General Assembly moving tuition from a secondary source to a primary source of revenue,” said Atul Bhula, a graduate student at Appalachian State University and sole student member of the UNC system’s Board of Governors. “I think the General Assembly needs to be reminded of its constitutional mandate.”

The calls for discussion have increased since Republicans swept into power in both the state Senate and House for the first time in more than a century. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said students and university officials should remember public higher education is North Carolina is a much bigger bargain than other states.

“I think one of the things we’ve got to be cognizant of is the relative cost compared to the peers out there,” said Berger, R-Rockingham. “If you would say that UNC Chapel Hill is a peer with Michigan and California and Texas and Virginia, then I don’t see how you can look at those comparisons and say we don’t have low tuition compared to those other schools.”

Some students have complained that if tuition keeps rising and student aid doesn’t keep pace, they will be priced out of higher education completely or graduate with much more debt.

But Berger, who worked his way through his undergraduate studies and law school, said that’s part of the sacrifice for getting a good education.

“I think you’ll probably continue to see even more of an expectation that those students who are taking advantage of that opportunity bear some of the expense of doing that,” Berger said. “The theory being that if you get an education that gives you career choices and opportunities down the road, you should be able to incur some debt and pay it back down the road. I think that may be what we’ll see.”

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