UNC’s ‘free tuition’ announcement causes confusion, spurs questions from board members
Members of the UNC System’s Board of Governors and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees are asking questions and offering pushback to university administrators following a “surprise” announcement last week in which the college offered certain eligible students “free tuition.”
On Friday, UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz announced that future students from North Carolina families making less than $80,000 a year will qualify for “free tuition and required fees.”
UNC administrators did not consult the Board of Governors or Board of Trustees, only sending the announcement to board members in a nondescript email shortly ahead of its public release. As of Tuesday, the university has yet to present their plan formally to either board.
Some Board of Governors members have provided public pushback to Guskiewicz’s statement. In a tweet, board member and attorney Woody White said decisions on tuition lie “firmly under the purview of the UNC Board of Governors, not with administrators” in compliance with Chapter 116 of the N.C. General Statutes.
Yet, university administrators may not need to seek the Board of Governors’ concurrence to move forward with the plan. Speaking to Carolina Journal, Board of Trustees member Marty Kotis said that to his understanding from conversations with Guskiewicz and other administrators, the university plans to give eligible students financial aid that covers tuition and fees rather than directly lowering tuition costs.
Officials from UNC-Chapel Hill did not respond to our questions on the plan’s specifics.
Kotis criticized Guskiewicz’s “semantics” in the announcement, stating it caused undue confusion among members of UNC’s governing boards and gave the impression that administrators were unilaterally attempting to cut tuition costs. However, Kotis said he is “still reserving judgment” on the plan and is continuously learning more information.
SCOTUS RULING PROMPTS PLAN
Guskiewicz’s move comes only weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that UNC’s race-based college admissions process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Court also ruled in another case that President Biden’s administration did not have the power to forgive student loan debt unilaterally and must seek Congressional approval.
While UNC states they will comply with the Supreme Court’s decision on admissions, Guskiewicz was adamant that UNC will remain committed to their “fundamental values” by encouraging student diversity and will “expand the University’s long-standing commitment to access and affordability for North Carolina families.”
The move also comes on the heels of Duke University’s announcement in June offering full tuition grants to student from North Carolina and South Carolina whose families make less than $150,000 a year.
While Kotis said he did not want to speculate on the administration’s motives for the announcement, he did mention that there is a “lot of competition [among universities] for students to achieve diversity needs.”
WHO WILL BE ELIGIBLE FOR UNC’S ‘FREE TUITION’ PLAN?
As expressed in the statement, those who will qualify for the plan are “incoming undergraduates from North Carolina whose families make less than $80,000 per year.”
However, Carolina Journal has learned that those families also must own less than $50,000 in assets, excluding their home. It is unclear how UNC will track those asset estimations.
According to data released by the university, at least 913 UNC students’ families would qualify for the program, based on 2020-2021 enrollment numbers, under the statement’s language. However, depending on how the university calculates their income or net worth, the number of those eligible could drop to a ballpark of fewer than 200 students.
Depending on the size of upcoming undergraduate classes, UNC reportedly expects that the additional financial aid will cost them over $500,000. However, that may underestimate the number of qualifying students, whether they already had some financial aid, and how the university would measure their incomes. Just 200 qualifying students could cost as much as $1.7 million annually at the $8,980 sticker price.
UNC officials have made no indication that students will receive financial aid to cover on-campus housing and meal plans. According to UNC’s reported calculations for the 2020-21 school year, on-campus room, board, and other expenses costs students on average $14,576 per year, far more than the $8,980 annual cost of tuition and fees.
Kotis said, from his understanding, UNC plans to pay for the additional aid with existing financial aid reserves and donations made to the university. The UNC system already receives large subsidies from the state. According to 2020 statistics, UNC system schools receive on average more than $12,000 from state taxpayers per student. That gives North Carolina state universities the fifth highest taxpayer-paid subsidy in the nation.
Some experts have criticized UNC’s plan on financial grounds. In a statement to Carolina Journal, Jenna Robinson, President of the Martin Center, condemned Guskiewicz’s statement.
“This ‘free tuition’ plan was released without proper planning or oversight…This is a significant spending item and will have effects across the UNC System,” said Robinson.
The plan has found support among UNC faculty. Adam Palmer, an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Computational Medicine, tweeted that he is “proud to be part of a great public university making world-class education affordable to students of all backgrounds” in reaction to Guskiewicz’s statement.
Guskiewicz stated the university would provide further details on the plan in the coming weeks. UNC’s Board of Governors and Board of Trustees will also meet in the coming weeks and are expected to discuss the university’s announcement in depth.