Note to those in charge of North Carolina's nationally respected public university system, where a tuition pricing policy sets the stage for students to become cash cows in an economic slump: This is a good time to just say no.
Chancellors, university trustees and the University of North Carolina governing board should not use shrinking state funds as an excuse to repeatedly raise tuition.
In 2006, after eight tuition hikes in seven years raised costs at some state universities as much as 71 percent, UNC President Erskine Bowles and the board of governors enacted a pricing guideline that put a 6.5 percent ceiling on in-state undergraduate tuition and fee hikes.
The idea? Make the cost of college predictable for families. Yet the cap is tied to state appropriations. That approach also leaves students open to the whims of lawmakers and to economic vicissitudes. The less state funding a school gets, the more it can hit students for the difference.
The UNC system will ask the legislature for spending increases of 5.8 percent next year, the lowest increase in 20 years. Frankly, with a budget shortfall projected to exceed $1.6 billion, higher education may get no expansion money. That means campuses will look hard at the only source that remains – students – to cover costs.
Expenses don't stand still for public universities. Buildings must be heated and cooled. Salaries must be paid. The state legislature must pay for increases in enrollment, period.
Yet the last thing North Carolina ought to do in an economic pinch is make it harder financially for its citizens to get education. The intent of the UNC policy was to urge restraint, not milk students when times go sour. Universities must tighten belts rather than pounce on tuition increases first thing. Families are strained already.
About 85 percent of the 15,838-student enrollment increase at UNC institutions between 1999 and 2006 received federal Pell Grants, the most reliable measure of financial need. For perspective: enrollment increased 14 percent, but Pell Grant recipients rose by 48 percent.
The number of UNC system students graduating with debt rose 11.2 percent from 2004 to the present, according to the UNC system.
Tuition and fees represent only a portion of the cost of college. Yet for many, it's the number that determines whether it's affordable. The higher the price tag, the more out of reach college becomes for North Carolinians of ordinary means.
Closing that door is the worst thing the state could do in a shaky economy.