Students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro pay the highest debt service fee — the fee used to pay for past and future campus construction costs — in the UNC system.
Out of the $2,390 that a UNCG student shells out each year in student fees, $707 is used to pay off the school’s construction-related debt. Of that $707, $435 is being channeled into a controversial project for a $91 million campus recreation facility, which is scheduled to open in 2016.
UNCG, like many colleges in North Carolina and across the country, has raised its tuition and fees at a marked rate in recent years. From 2007-08 to this 2013-14 academic year, tuition and fees at UNCG have increased by almost 60 percent. As the fifth-largest school in the UNC system, UNCG now also has the fifth-highest tuition and fees. So for some students and professors, the $91 million recreation center (the most expensive building in the school’s history) represents a huge burden and signals that the university’s priorities are backward.
On Oct. 30, more than 40 students and faculty members held a press conference on UNCG’s campus to express their disapproval. A faculty member said that UNCG is becoming “a fancy hamburger stand without the beef,” claiming that the push for flamboyant campus facilities has overtaken the push to improve academic excellence. “I am very concerned about the shift in emphasis at this university,” said another professor, Susan Dennison.
Student representatives and concerned parties have been vocal throughout the past few months. Two days after the press conference, one student, Jonathan Lyle, wrote a letter to the editor of Greensboro’s News & Record, claiming that “prioritizing this expansion undercuts UNCG’s teaching mission, making it less attractive to students looking for quality, yet affordable education. UNCG is failing its students and it’s failing as an institution of higher education.”
The recreation center is part of a massive, multiyear project initiated by UNCG, called Spartan Village. The Village was planned and designed — at least partially — around enrollment projections that have not matched reality. According to the UNC General Administration, the school’s undergraduate and graduate enrollment figures declined by 5 percent and 12 percent respectively between 2009 and 2012. Those arguing against the new construction say that it makes little sense to force students to pay $435 per year for an expansive facility at a shrinking university.
According to the UNCG administration, 45 faculty positions will be eliminated this year because of state funding cuts (although those are vacant positions); the school also is shuffling 14 professors to new positions to avoid layoffs. There also will be reductions in graduate student stipends.
Students and faculty opposing the new facility believe that spending fee revenue on projects unrelated to what they view as a deteriorating academic environment will do a disservice to students and the reputation of UNCG.
The university administration sees things differently. On its website, the UNCG administration writes that the existing facility is too small given the current student population, and that demand for recreation facilities has increased since the current building was built in 1992. They also point out that the new building will provide new jobs for students, host concerts, dances, and other campus events, and will be an overall benefit to the community.
Other North Carolina colleges have caught the construction bug. N.C. A&T State University has announced plans to build a $90 million student union. A couple of years ago, N.C. State University renovated its student center for a cool $120 million. At a recent UNC-Wilmington trustees meeting, the administration presented plans for a new athletic facility. A host of other schools recently have constructed buildings or have plans for sprawling renovations.
Jesse Saffron is a writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.