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UNC System President: Keep tuition flat for a full decade

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UNC System President: Keep tuition flat for a full decade

Sep 14, 2023 | 3:58 pm ET
By Joe Killian
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UNC System President: Keep tuition flat for a full decade
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UNC System President Peter Hans (Photo: Screen grab of videostream/PBSNC.org)

UNC System President Peter Hans recommended Thursday that the UNC System’s Board of Governors avoid raising in-state tuition at universities for an eighth straight year. He’d like to see it remain flat for a full decade.

“I think it’s tremendously important for the message it sends to the families of North Carolina, that college is within reach for all North Carolinians, no matter their income or their background,” Hans told Newsline Thursday. “Because it runs so counter to the national trends and national message about the rising costs of college and increasing student debt.”

Under the NC Promise program tuition is now $500 per semester at four of the system’s 16 universities — Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Western Carolina University. Tuition varies at other universities in the system with UNC-Chapel Hill the most expensive at around $7,000 per year. Those costs don’t include mandatory student fees, which the universities can still raise, and things like books, food and housing.

Adjusted for inflation, Hans, said, tuition at public universities is less now than it was at the end of the Obama administration. That’s important in an environment wherein more young people are questioning the value of higher education and student debt is a major issue as they try to begin their post-college lives, Hans said.

“To go from 63 percent borrowing money to 55 percent, that’s a tremendous achievement I think the state can be proud of,” Hans said. “There’s no other state in the country that can point to eight years of flat tuition.”

Offering the lowest possible tuition is an obligation under the state constitution, Hans said, but it’s also a moral obligation.

“If  we’re going to fulfill our mission to serve all North Carolinians, particularly at a time when working class families are under pressure, we need to make sure college is affordable and accessible to them,” Hans said.

A bipartisan commitment to higher education in the state is at the heart of that, Hans said, and elected leaders in state government continue to prioritize and to fund public higher education. North Carolina is in the top five of all states when it comes to higher education funding on a per-capita basis, Hans said — something he expects to continue.

“There are strong reasons to be optimistic about the budget once it is passed,” Hans said. “We’re excited about that.”

Republican legislative leaders in in the state House and Senate are still at an impasse on the state budget as they argue over whether and how to expand casino gambling in the state. That’s left some priorities like Medicaid expansion in limbo and led Gov. Roy Cooper to release federal dollars to aid pre-K this week as the stalemate stretches toward the end of summer.

Universities across the system have struggled with falling enrollment in the last few years. The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic conditions that followed have both played a part in that, but universities are also facing something higher education insiders call “the demographic cliff” — the reality that Americans began having fewer children and waiting longer to have them around the time of the Great Recession beginning in 2007. Birth rates have never really rebounded, leading to fewer traditional college-aged young people. Though the state’s number of graduating high school students is rising at the moment, that number is projected to decline from 2026 to 2030.

Enrollments have ticked up at more system campuses this fall than last, when 12 of the 16 universities saw declines. First-time college enrollment, an important measure, is also up at some struggling regional universities like UNC-Greensboro. But many campuses are looking to cut faculty, courses and whole programs.

As NC Newsline reported earlier this year, the UNC System has asked the General Assembly for $16.8 million as part of the state budget process to incentivize faculty retirements — starting with schools that have for years faced enrollment problems. Five campuses would be prioritized: NC Central, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Greensboro, Winston-Salem State, and East Carolina University.

The system office estimates 20% of those eligible may take retirement, freeing up salary dollars that could be used elsewhere at campuses that are looking at tough budget cuts.

That funding, like so many other things, is still waiting on a final state budget.