UNC System will not raise tuition, continues to explore fall semester reopening

Students returning for the Fall semester at UNC System schools won’t face tuition and fee increases. But it’s far from certain how many of those students will be returning and how the 17 campus schools will each handle their return.

The UNC Board of Governors voted unanimously on Wednesday to keep tuition and fees flat, as Policy Watch reported was likely earlier this month.

As Policy Watch previously reported,  most of the state’s universities would like to see tuition and fees increased. Just a few months ago, the board was considering an average increase for new, in-state undergraduates of 2.5 percent, or about $165. But chancellors at the individual universities and UNC Board of Governors members said they are reluctant to raise costs for students with so much economic uncertainty related to the pandemic.

“We believed the people of North Carolina had enough burden,” said  UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey in a press conference after Wednesday’s full board meeting.

Randy Ramsey, Chairman of the UNC Board of Governors.

How the  universities will absorb inevitable cuts is not yet clear. With increased costs and a massive hit to revenues related to the pandemic, the General Assembly is expecting a shortfall in next year’s state budget of up to $4 billion.

“If you’re looking at a state shortfall of $2 – $4 billion, you could be looking at a ten to twenty percent cut to the system, depending upon what revenue numbers come in at,” said board member Marty Kotis in a committee meeting Tuesday.

None of the universities are yet sure how many students will return to campus for the Fall semester, even if every school works out a plan for in-person instruction. Some may choose to take a gap year in light of the pandemic, board members said. Some families, concerned about the safety of returning to campus with the coronavirus projected to see another spike in cold and flu season, may choose to pursue online-only education until there is greater certainty.

“You don’t know if students are going to be there really, until they write that check for tuition,” Kotis said, which means the system can’t be confident of its own revenue figures.

This week, Kotis suggested the university may look at raising tuition on out-of-state students. That would help increase revenues without violating the university’s mandate to be as close to free as is possible for citizens of North Carolina.

Roper and Ramsey said they believe that would support that idea — but not this year, as all students and their families are dealing with enough economic uncertainty related to the pandemic.

As Policy Watch reported earlier this week, UNC system schools have already been hit hard by the need to refund money students paid for room and board and other fees. On Thursday, the full board voted on allocations for $44.4 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund created by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In Tuesday’s Public Affairs committee meeting, Roper told board members that the university’s business model — built on having students on campus — simply does not work without them there.

For now the system is working hard to find the best way to bring students back to all its campuses in August, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper said Thursday. Roper, a physician and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the emphasis will be on safety.  Individual schools will have the autonomy to decide exactly when and in what manner students will return, Roper said, and the system hopes to finish work on draft guidance on how to best do so most safely by the end of this month.

That’s something most students also want, said Ramsey.

“We have to get our students back on campus this Fall,” Ramsey said. “The students I’ve talked to this summer, they’ve been anxious to get back to campus. I haven’t talked to a single student who has said, ‘I can’t wait to go back to my room and do this!’

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