A blow to student aid

Aug. 02, 2014 @ 05:42 PM

The mandate for North Carolina’s university system is in Article IX, Section 9 of the state’s constitution:

“The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”

That phrase “as far as practicable” provides the threat or promise, depending on your viewpoint, of elasticity in deciding what to charge for an education at a state college or university.

In recent years, what’s practicable, in the eyes of the legislature, has been shrinking. With round upon round of cuts in state funding, universities have turned to tuition to meet rising costs, even as they trimmed faculty and cut back programs.

Still, the system’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill has been able to clear a financial path for students whose family income might have made impossible the dream of a UNC education for which their brains and diligence qualified them. Even though tuition and fees for North Carolina residents have nearly doubled in the past decade – to $8,374 this year – need-based aid trimmed that bill to on average $6,454 a year. Through its acclaimed “Carolina Covenant,” UNC-CH promised a debt-free education to any student whose family made less than twice the federal poverty guideline. UNC-CH persistently ranks as one of the best values in higher education.

But last week the Board of Governors took aim at a cornerstone of the university’s commitment to affordability.

The board – with no debate after only brief committee discussion the day before -- mandated that no campus could use more than 15 percent of its tuition revenue for need-based aid. At UNC-Chapel Hill, almost 21 percent of tuition revenue goes for such aid.

Proponents of the cap argue that in effect families of modest means that don’t qualify for aid have subsidized the education of children from families with less modest means. But the school’s policy of tapping its more affluent students to help its less affluent ones has seemed to assure an enviable situation.

The average undergraduates leaves UNC with about $17,000 in debt, much lower than at most peer institutions. University leaders predict that debt load will double as need-based aid is constricted.

We don’t dismiss the concerns of those who pressed for the cap. And certainly a board committee looked at this in some depth. But given the average debt we wonder if Donald Hornstein, a UNC law professor who chairs a faculty council on scholarships and aid, didn’t have a point when he told the Daily Tar Heel it was a “solution …. in search of a problem.”

“It may be the biggest lose-lose decision I’ve ever seen made by a public body,” Hornstein said.

We’re not sure we would go that far. But the implications of the move are troubling, and we fear this is a setback to making education in this state as “free of expense … as is practicable.”