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June 14, 2024 11:55 pm

Local News

As UNC-Chapel Hill Announces Free Tuition, Political Appointees Raise Questions, Push Back

Credit: iStock

by Joe Killian, NC Newsline

When UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced last week the university would begin providing free tuition and required fees for students whose families make less than $80,000 a year, it came as a surprise. Not just to the general public, but to the university’s board of trustees and the UNC System Board of Governors, as well.

“I heard about it when everyone else did on Friday,” said Marty Kotis, a member of the campus board of trustees and former member of the board of governors.

Some political appointees on those boards are already pushing back on the plan, while others say they need more information. The chancellor’s message was light on detail, Kotis said, and left him with a lot of questions. This week, he’s attempting to get them answered. He’s not alone.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees “has not taken this up in any form or fashion,” said board chairman David Boliek. UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chair Dave Boliek

The university’s board of trustees has a meeting in two weeks. “I expect we’ll hear the full idea from the chancellor then,” Boliek said.

NC Newsline reached out to the university for more detail on the plan but had not heard back by midday Monday.

Guskiewicz, who said the plan’s details would be made available “within the next few weeks,” framed it as a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s striking down race as a factor in college admissions. Reducing the financial barrier to attending UNC-Chapel Hill would help keep the university diverse and “passionately public,” Guskiewicz wrote.

Haywood “Woody” White, a new member of the system’s board of governors, took to Twitter on Saturday to criticize the plan as he understood it.

“Chapter 116 of the NC General Statutes places all university governing decisions, which certainly include policies in the wake of what @scotus found as discriminatory practices, firmly under the purview of the UNC Board of Governors, not with administrators,” White wrote. “Admissions policies for all constituent campuses, should be uniform, to the extent practicable. We look forward to working w/ all Chancellors and policy makers to ensure full compliance with the Courts decision.”

White is technically correct, Kotis said, in that changing admissions policies and setting tuition are both functions of the board of governors. But Guskiewiez, to whom Kotis spoke by phone Monday, doesn’t intend to do either.

“It’s semantics,” Kotis said. “It’s not the tuition itself that is reduced. It’s financial aid provided to the effect of free tuition to folks who are under $80,000 in household income and do not have significant assets.”

The message could have communicated that more clearly, Kotis said, but Guksiewicz isn’t proposing anything that would usurp the powers of either governing board.

“The funding is part of the existing financial aid funding bucket, as well as part of the recent campaign to raise funds to Carolina,” Kotis said. “Many of those funds were provided for scholarships and financial aid. Some are restricted to a particular school but there is a big bucket that is not as well.”

Duke University, a rival to Chapel Hill not just in sports but also in admissions, announced a similar program last month – but with much greater detail. Its program, which would begin with the coming fall semester, would provide full tuition grants for its undergraduate students admitted from North Carolina and South Carolina with family incomes of $150,000 or less.

If a family’s income is below $65,000, Duke plans to provide not just full tuition but also housing, meals and some course materials.

At Duke, tuition alone for the 2023-2024 academic year will be $63,450. At UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s $7,020 per year, plus roughly $2,000 in mandatory fees.

The median household income in North Carolina is a little over $60,500.

“It should cost less”

Both Boliek and Kotis said that in principle, they support making UNC-Chapel Hill more accessible to lower income families, which they said should be a goal at all UNC System schools. “We have a constitutional mandate to make it as close to free as possible,” Kotis said.

How that’s done – and where – is something that needs discussion. UNC-Chapel Hill Trustee Marty Kotis.

“I don’t know the details of how this is going to be funded,” Boliek said of the plan announced by Guskiewiecz. “I don’t know the funding model. So it would be hard for me to give sort of a straight answer on what I think of it.”

However it is funded, Boliek said, it could put other universities in the system in an awkward position.

“Initiatives at this level, when you’re talking about UNC-Chapel Hill as a member system school, there needs to be consideration for uniformity across campuses,” Boliek said. “It’s not as easy as, ‘We’re going to do this at Chapel Hill.’”

Two members of the UNC Board of Governors agreed with that in interviews with NC Newsline Monday. Both asked not to be named in order to speak frankly about internal board discussions.

“There have been a lot of calls and e-mail over the weekend, because this completely blindsided most of us,” one member said. “This is a pretty big announcement to find out about in the paper or to have people texting you and you don’t know anything about it. And my first thought, really, was ‘What does this mean for other schools? What does it mean for NC State? What does it mean for App State? What does it mean for A&T?”

The system’s flagship campus often gets more of the spotlight than other schools, the member said, and often raises far more money than smaller regional universities. Those campuses could seem less appealing to well-qualified students because they can’t afford to offer to cover tuition and fees to the same degree Chapel Hill can.

“I wish we could offer free tuition to anyone who can get in to any of our schools,” another board of governors member said. “Our goal, really our mandate, is to get as close to doing that as we can. But we have some schools that are struggling right now, financially and enrollment-wise. To have one of the largest and most well-off schools saying, ‘Come here, and we’ll cover the cost,’ – you can’t say that isn’t going to have some impact across the system.”

Boliek’s own son just graduated from Chapel Hill, he told Newsline Monday. The total cost, including tuition, fees and living expenses, was between $21,000 and $22,000 a year.

“That’s still too much,” Boliek said. “It should cost less. All colleges should cost less. But across the spectrum, Carolina – for what you get – is the most affordable in the country. He got a great education and has a great job right out of school. I think for the education you get, it’s still the most affordable in the country.”

The board of trustees has done its best to keep it that way, Boliek said, keeping tuition flat for the last seven years. Philosophically, Boliek said, he suspects most members of the board will support a plan that means more lower-income students will be able to attend UNC-Chapel Hill. But announcing the broad strokes of such a plan without buy-in from the board may have been an error. It is the chancellor’s prerogative to make certain financial aid changes, Boliek said. But in the absence of more detail, the big splash of a public announcement left many on the governing boards with more questions than answers.

Guskiewicz’s announcement also comes ahead of House and Senate members finalizing the state budget and how much will be earmarked for higher education.
“From a governance standpoint, I don’t think the timing of that message was optimal,” Boliek said.  “Since the board of trustees and the board of governors had not been updated or informed of the idea.”

Kotis agreed, but said he supports donors and philanthropy organizations putting more emphasis on making a Chapel Hill education more accessible to lower income students rather than concentrating on new buildings and capital projects on campus.

There is a precedent at Carolina through both the Carolina Covenant and Blue Sky Scholars programs, both initiatives to be sure well-qualified students can afford to attend UNC-Chapel Hill whatever their family’s financial situation. But how any such program is funded is important to discuss before it comes online.

“You’ve got to look at what is the benefit, what’s the impact, how many people do you impact, and what do you have to do to pay for that?” Kotis said. “Is there an increase in tuition, do the taxpayers have to pay for that?”

The NC Promise Program, which reduced tuition at some smaller UNC system schools to $500 per semester, has been phenomenally successful, Kotis said. It drove an enrollment resurgence at some of those schools and making a college education more widely available to lower income students. But it too had costs that had to be offset.

“I’m asking questions right now and I think a lot of people are,” Kotis said. “Some of these are questions where you’d like to have the answers before an announcement.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.