UNC board votes to keep tuition, fees flat for coming school year

by Kari Travis

Raleigh, NC – The University of North Carolina System won’t raise tuition and fees this year while students and their families struggle to stay financially afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

That’s a good start, one expert says, but UNC should use this time to reconsider its approach to affordable higher education. 

UNC Board of Governors

In an action-packed meeting Wednesday, May 20, the UNC Board of Governors unanimously voted to keep tuition and fees flat for the 2020-21 school year. It was a switch from conversations held a few months ago, when the board was considering an average tuition hike of 2.7% for new resident undergraduates. They were also looking to raise mandatory student fees an average of 2.4%. But when the coronavirus hit North Carolina, crippling its economy and sending hundreds of thousands of people to the unemployment office, board members decided against raising prices, said BOG Chairman Randy Ramsey. 

“We take tuition and fees very seriously,” Ramsey told CJ during a news conference after the meeting. “We try to thoughtfully consider how this is going to affect people.” 

“We believed the people of North Carolina had enough burden.” 

The decision to keep tuition and fees flat this year is a good one, said Joe Coletti, senior fellow for fiscal and tax policy at the John Locke Foundation. But UNC should continue to cut costs — even when not facing a crisis. 

“If UNC ends up with more online classes, schools may even need to reduce tuition this year,” Coletti said. 

In North Carolina, affordable higher education is a constitutional right for residents, and several cost regulations are in play. In addition to passing NC Promise in 2016 — a program slashing tuition at three UNC schools — the General Assembly capped student fee increases at 3%, and enacted fixed tuition for resident students who complete their degree in four years.  

UNC owes it to residents to keep college affordable, said board member Marty Kotis, and the system should consider raising tuition and fees for out-of-state students as a way to defray costs for North Carolinians. 

That’s something UNC may consider in the future, UNC interim President Bill Roper said. 

For now, system employees are working around the clock to move UNC past the pandemic and into the fall semester, Roper said. 

“We are totally focused on how to serve North Carolina while spending less,” Roper said in an address to board members. 

Roper, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CEO of UNC Health Care, said he’s optimistic fall classes will open on campus. But questions about format linger. Will two students be assigned to each dorm room?, a handful of members asked during committee meetings Monday. How will classes be formatted? 

What will revenue look like? 

“We really won’t know these things until we open in August,” Roper told BOG members. 

One thing is certain. With leaders of the General Assembly projecting shortfalls of $4 billion in the state’s budget for next year, the university will be short money. 

The state has fallen behind on income due to a delayed tax filing deadline of July 15. While North Carolina has enough money to make it through the end of this fiscal year, lawmakers are still waiting to see what the final tally will look like for 2020-21. 

Where might UNC cut spending? CJ asked Roper. And what do UNC’s revenue shortfalls actually look like?

“We’re intently working on those very matters,” Roper answered, “but I’m not ready to talk about what the changes in revenue and changes in expenses will be.”

It’ll likely be July before the university sees final numbers, Roper told CJ

UNC can’t rely on more state assistance to make up for lost money, JLF’s Coletti said, because universities are already raking in significant help from federal and state governments. UNC brought in $180 million in direct support under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The system is getting part of another $96 million from the federal government through Gov. Roy Cooper’s discretionary fund. The system was awarded another $68 million to support its Historically Minority Serving Institutions and a handful of other campuses.   

Earlier this month, the system received $44.4 million as part of North Carolina’s COVID-19 relief package. That money is for online learning, sanitation, and other pandemic-related expenses. 

North Carolina’s $4 billion shortfall means UNC has to make cuts, Coletti said. Non-instructional employees should face cutbacks. Salaries for the highest paid administrators may need to be reduced. 

“[UNC] should also eliminate newly created degrees and accelerate the consolidation and discontinuation process,” he said. It’s a good time to think outside the box when it comes to higher education, he concluded. 

“UNC schools can use their recently gained experience with online education to increase distance offerings and improve on-campus courses at lower cost,” Coletti said. “Schools may also be able to expand enrollment. 

The UNC system’s limit on out-of-state students, now capped at 18%, could also be reconsidered, Coletti said. 

‘That may be helpful in this situation because there is less revenue at risk if international or other non-resident students are slow to return.”

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, BOG member Tom Fetzer, whose name is tangled up in several board controversies, resigned his position, effective immediately. Fetzer is a lobbyist, former Raleigh mayor, and long-time Republican activist and consultant.

Fetzer said he’s leaving the board to focus on homeschooling his five children. CJ asked BOG Chairman Ramsey if there was any other reason for Fetzer’s resignation. Ramsey said he wasn’t aware of any other issues with Fetzer. 

“He was a spirited member of our board.” 

“I really don’t have anything else to say about it,” Ramsey said when another reporter repeated the question.