Opinion: Clarion Call

Students not-so-surprisingly silent over tuition increases

Clarion Call No. 139
Less than a year after hundreds of University of North Carolina students marched to the Capitol to protest UNC budget cuts and large tuition increases, tuition increases are again being proposed for several UNC schools, yet the students are now mute. They were in August when legislators debated a 9 percent, retroactive tuition hike for all UNC system students (which passed Aug. 30) that The Daily Tar Heel wrote a story about it, “Low Turnout for Anti-Tuition Rally Frustrates Leaders,” on Aug. 28. “Despite the possibility of additional charges,” the DTH noted, referring to the tuition increase, “rally organizers had difficulty enticing student involvement.”

“When have students really cared about how much their parents are paying for them?” asked Dr. Roy Cordato, vice president for research at the John Locke Foundation.

On Thursday the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees recommended raising tuition there by $400. Meetings to plan student demonstrations against that tuition hike drew fewer than two dozen students. A Jan. 22 forum sponsored by the Graduate and Professional Student Federation for students to speak out against the tuition increases attracted no more than nine students. Only 40 students showed up at a planned protest of tuition increases the day of the BOT meeting.

Other UNC schools are considering increasing tuition, including N.C. State, whose own board of trustees will consider recommending an increase at its meeting in late February. Also mulling tuition increases are N.C. Central University, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, N.C. Agricultural & Technical State University, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Wilmington, and Western Carolina University. Student reaction so far has been similar to UNC-CH’s.

In January, UNC-CH’s student government posted an online survey to poll student opinion on tuition increases, which to no one’s surprise found a majority opposed to any increases. The poll asked students to choose among tuition increases of $0, $100, $200, and $400 in answering which proposed amounts for increasing tuition were the “lowest reasonable,” “highest affordable,” and also each voting student’s “personal preference.” Nearly 600 students took part, and student government leaders planned to use the results in asking trustees to back away from tuition increases.

An alternative reading of that poll from what student leaders were pushing (a 51.4 percent majority of students said no increase was the “lowest reasonable” increase, and a third said no increase was the “highest affordable”), however, seemed to indicate why the anti-tuition-increase movement on campus was moribund. Nearly half (49.6 percent) considered some increase in tuition “reasonable,” two-thirds said they could afford some increase in tuition, and more than a third even admitted to preferring some tuition increase.

As reported in last month’s Carolina Journal, even with the recent increases in tuition and fees at UNC system schools, “costs to attend UNC schools are still lower than regional and U.S. averages of total fees and tuition.” The average student cost in tuition at fees to attend college in the South was 33 percent higher than the average student cost to attend a UNC institution, and the average student cost to attend college nationally was 56 percent higher.

Another reason is for the flaccid movement against tuition increases could be that the universities themselves are no longer hijacking it to strong-arm the legislature away from budget cuts. The rally last May included faculty members and even Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, and N.C. State University actively supported the rally. As Carolina Journal reported in June 2001, “N.C. State lent support to the students for the event, allowing N.C. State Marching Band instruments to be used in the rally, providing sound equipment, and even sending a university bus to the rally, perhaps carrying the table, cups, and the Gatorade coolers the university provided to refresh the protesters.”

With the universities themselves seeking the increase, and with budget cuts off the table, students against tuition increases were left to mobilize on their own.