RALEIGH – A bill backed by state Senate leaders that would cap tuition at five North Carolina universities at $1,000 a year deserves praise for attempting to limit costs for students and their families.
But unless legislators commit to provide incremental revenue to replace lost tuition dollars at the five universities, they could cripple the institutions. They shouldn’t raid other parts of the university system, which has seen $700 million in cuts since 2008, to come up with the funds.
SB873, sponsored by Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, would reduce tuition to $500 a semester for in-state students and $2,500 a semester for out-of-state students at Elizabeth City State, UNC-Pembroke, Fayetteville State, Winston-Salem State and Western Carolina universities.
At a time when tuition and fees at our state’s public universities have risen 72% over 10 years and student debt has increased 52% since 2008, the bill has obvious appeal. It is now part of the Senate’s budget proposal.1
But officials estimate the cap on tuition would cost the universities a total of $60-70 million a year. Unless legislators make a firm commitment to replace those lost tuition dollars, they might well consign the institutions to second-tier status.
Apodaca added a provision last week that says the state budget director may provide as much as $70 million to the five universities to replace lost tuition revenue.2
He described it as “a guarantee – as much as the General Assembly can guarantee going forward, out two years – that these additional monies will be reimbursed to the universities from the General Fund.”3
All the campuses affected except Western Carolina have historically served minority students. The bill has met with skepticism, especially at historically black colleges and universities, that the replacement funds could dry up, forcing drastic cuts or even closure of campuses.4
Asked whether the legislature could guarantee future funds, Apodaca replied, “We cannot obligate another General Assembly…. The best guarantee that I can give you at this point is this came from President Pro Tem (Phil) Berger with the commitment that that money stays there.”5
By attracting a broader pool of applicants, some fear the measure would change the culture of the institutions. Others question whether low tuition might “cheapen” degrees from the five institutions.
“My answer is no,” Apodaca said. “It’s a marketing ploy. Let’s be very honest – this is to help get more students, higher-quality students, into the universities so they can sustain themselves, and do it on a geographical basis across the state of North Carolina.”6
Legislators take an oath to uphold North Carolina’s constitution, which includes an unusual provision regarding higher education.
“The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense,” it says.7
We often focus on the “free as practicable” wording – the proposed tuition cap is laudable in its effort to abide by that.
But the constitution also speaks to the quality of higher education when it refers to providing the “benefits” of its universities. Unless legislators replace lost tuition dollars, they might well diminish the institutions and won’t live up to that constitutional mandate.
Perhaps legislators should test the capped-tuition model at one or two campuses first. They also could include a trigger that says the tuition limit will be suspended if the legislature doesn’t provide replacement funds.
SB873 has a variety of other provisions as well. It would:
- Require every public university to provide a fixed-tuition option where a student would be guaranteed the same tuition rate for four years. This would likely increase tuition in the first two years beyond what a student would otherwise pay. A study in Illinois found that guaranteed tuition actually escalated tuition faster than annual increases because of “frontloading” during a student’s initial years.8
- Reduce student fees 5% at all state universities and let fees increase by no more than 3% a year.
- Provide $3.2 million to establish merit scholarships for 100 students at NC A&T and NC Central universities. It’s not clear who would raise private matching dollars that the bill would require, but the campuses already face a cap enacted last year on use of state dollars for fundraising.
- Ask the Board of Governors that oversees the university system to study lifting an 18% cap on out-of-state admissions at the five universities with capped tuition.
1 http://ncleg.net/Sessions/2015/Budget/2016/H1030-CSMDxf-18v64.pdf, pp. 43-48.
2Ibid, Part III, Section 3.(a).
3 http://www.wral.com/bill-would-cut-tuition-at-five-unc-schools-guarantee-rates-at-other-11/15727579/, 5:44.
5 http://www.wral.com/bill-would-cut-tuition-at-five-unc-schools-guarantee-rates-at-other-11/15727579/ 12:36.
7 http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/Legislation/constitution/ncconstitution.html, Article IX, Section 9.