The first question most families ask about college is, “How much will it cost?” That question becomes even more critical when record numbers of North Carolinians are out of work and economic uncertainty strangles prosperity.
That's why restraint must be shown on price hikes for state residents attending state universities. UNC President Erskine Bowles has recommended scaled-down tuition and fee guidelines for next year that show good judgment. It's in keeping with the strain this recession has placed on the state's residents, and the University of North Carolina governing board would be wise to follow.
Bowles wants to slice tuition and fee increases proposed for in-state undergraduate students at 16 campuses by 33 percent. At the same time, he wants to lower the university system's cap on tuition and fee hikes from 6.5 percent to 4.5 percent. That means the average tuition and fee increase across the system would be modest at 2.8 percent. That would save students from $30 to $100 per year, depending on which campus they attended, compared with earlier proposals.
In addition, Bowles wants campuses to use 40 percent of the revenue from tuition and fee increases for need-based aid. As it stands, 25 percent of tuition hikes must go to need-based aid.
“The unprecedented scope of this recession and its growing impact on North Carolina families … mandate a different approach …” Bowles wrote in a memo to members of the UNC Board of Governors.
No price increase would be preferable. Yet that may not be reasonable when campuses have absorbed significant increases in energy costs and confront record enrollment increases as laid-off workers seek new skills.
This may be among the most important decisions North Carolina makes this year. If the board agrees – and it should – there will be distress on some campuses. That includes UNC Charlotte, where steep fee increases are being dialed back.
But it would be worse to price the path to a better life – and to economic recovery – out of reach for stressed families.
A committee will meet today to consider Bowles' recommendation. A decision will come in February. Yet the right course is clear: Raise the price as little as possible for in-state undergraduates in North Carolina and devote as much of that money as possible to student aid.