Next month, the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) will consider changes to the system’s need-based aid policy  mandating schools to set aside a minimum of 25 percent of new tuition revenue for need-based financial aid for low-income students. The mandate was established when the Board decided to raise tuition and recognized that the increase would make post-secondary education cost-prohibitive for many low-income students. Mandating a floor rather than a cap of 25 percent serves to ensure that access to higher education is an inclusive process, recognizes that education plays a key role in helping our least fortunate future citizens reach the American Dream through hard work. Why does the UNC BOG want to make this dream harder and move North Carolina backwards?
Tuition in the UNC system  has increased by 58 percent over the course of the Great Recession. For low-income households, tuition costs already represented nearly a third of their budget before these increases took effect. Parents and students can only work so many jobs and save only so much. Maintaining a longstanding commitment to keeping college accessible to students from low-income families doesn’t require extra effort on the part of the Board of Governors – it’s already in the constitution. This change is a big deal, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
UNC administrators say that tuition increases have been necessary. This isn’t surprising since the UNC system’s budget has been cut by 11 percent since the start of the recession . State funding for need-based aid was cut in the biennial budget too and while this year’s budget restored some of those dollars, total state funding for need-based aid remains well below what is needed for students to attend and complete their education. And so as the state has divested in post-secondary education and its commitment to an affordable post-secondary education, the university system, families and students have had to come up with new approaches. The UNC BOG would do better to take a different approach to UNC’s financial stresses than to further shift them onto the students and families that can least afford it.
The Board’s action on this issue is critical for the long-term success of the state. North Carolina needs to increase student completion of degree programs by more than half a million in the coming years in order to meet the forecasted demands of the labor market. Moreover, post-secondary education has demonstrated its continued ability to offer some protection against economic downturns and boost lifetime earnings.
While the 25% set-aside is no substitute for a recommitment on the part of state policymakers to invest in a post-secondary system that supports students through to completion, it is important to ensuring more students succeed in school and providing some equity for campuses with lower endowments. If North Carolina wants its less-advantaged young adults to have an equal shot at attending and graduating from college, this set-aside is essential. If North Carolina wants to be able to meet the demands of our labor market in the future, that means making education and training accessible to all North Carolinians. The members of the BOG must decide what is more important next month as they weigh their options: an ideology hidden under the veil of “flexibility” that only serves to support an education for the more advantaged, OR investments that enhance access to the American Dream for all North Carolinians.