North Carolina college students protest rising education costs

Thousands of triangle college students will graduate this spring - but few of them debt free
April 12, 2014 12:18:37 PM PDT
Thousands of triangle college students will graduate this spring - but few of them debt free. The rising cost of tuition is the reason dozens of protesters showed up at Friday's UNC Board of Governor's meeting.

They want the UNC system to consider gradually eliminating student debt. It's a bold idea that may have few backers.

At the meeting Friday, the board debated the use of tuition dollars for need-based financial aid. Some on the board don't think it's fair that some of the tuition paid to attend the state's public universities is used to provide needier students with financial aid.

UNC campuses have increased average tuition by 55 percent since 2007-08, before the national recession pushed state lawmakers into sharper cuts in taxpayer funding, yet the state universities remain among the lowest-cost in the country.  Even before 2007, the university system has directed campuses to set aside a portion - most years a quarter to a half - of the tuition increases for financial aid to help students who need it.

The tuition set-asides have become a more frequent complaint as more of the UNC board members have been chosen by Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011. The $126 million campuses distributed to students in 2012-13 from the tuition set-asides means some students are subsidizing others, board member Frank Grainger of Cary said.

"It's not a fact that they don't need that money. We need to find a way to help them get that money," he said. "But it's not fair to take it from another fellow student that's in the school regardless to what their social status is in the community or state, and give it to someone else."

A financial aid report shows almost 60 percent of the 160,000 or so in-state undergraduates who attended UNC schools in the 2012-13 academic year received need-based financial aid. The average ranged from four out of 10 undergraduates at UNC-Chapel Hill to between 70 and 90 percent attending campuses targeting minority students in Winston-Salem, Pembroke, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Elizabeth City and Durham.

The UNC Board of Governors on Friday approved sending a statement with every resident student's tuition bill that breaks down where that money is spent. Tuition bills next academic year will explain how each campus spends tuition revenues. For example, about half of the $3,500 tuition bill a North Carolina student attending UNC-Charlotte is expected to pay next year will cover instructional costs like faculty salaries. About 40 percent pays to run the campus. Ten percent of the tuition bill goes toward helping students pay for higher education.

But students at Friday's protest don't like the direction the board is headed.

"What they're doing here in the board is talking about a policy that comes dangerously close to creating a giant shortfall in financial aid," offered Matt Hickson with the group NC Student Power Union.

Fearing future tuition hikes in response to cuts in state funding, the students from schools across the state challenged UNC leaders help students graduate debt free.

"Students right now are accruing interest on debt in an economy that's not allowing them to get a job," said Hickson.

The group's idea found little interest from many board members.

"We are loading this burden onto middle class students and their parents and it's got to stop at some point," said board member Champion Mitchell.

But Hickson disagrees.

"We are, by default, saying that only wealthy students should be allowed to come to the NC system," he said.

Another UNC Chapel Hill student told ABC11 she says she receives need based financial aid that was recently reduced - giving her only one choice: hefty student loans.

"UNC promised I would leave here debt free - a promise that more students - not one less - deserves. I guess it's not in the budget to keep promises anymore," she said.

She was talking about the Carolina Covenant - a pledge that eligible low-income students will graduate from UNC Chapel Hill debt free.

The board of governors will create a special committee to take up the issue of need-based financial aid.

AP reporter Emery Dalesio contributed to this story


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