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Bowles Proposes Affordable, Predictable Tuition With Cap

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Tuition increases for the University of North Carolina's 16 campuses would be capped at 6.5 percent for each of the next four years under a plan released Monday by system president Erskine Bowles.

The cap, which would only apply to in-state tuition rates, represents the university's average tuition increases over the past 34 years and is slightly higher than the 5 percent national index for inflation for higher education, according to the plan.

A tuition task force will review the plan at an Oct. 10 meeting. If it adopts the proposal, the university system's Board of Governors will review the plan at its next meeting on Oct. 13. If approved, the plan would be reviewed again after four years.

In a letter to the board, Bowles said the university must meet its "constitutional and moral responsibility" to keep tuition low but ensure funding is adequate to provide a high-quality education.

Bowles could not be reached for further comment on Monday.

The proposal comes amid complaints from students caught-off-guard by steep tuition increases in recent years. The plan calls for predictable increases that would help students plan and prepare financially, said Jeff Davis, Bowles' chief of staff who helped draft the plan.

"President Bowles is trying to keep the university system accessible to all people in the state of North Carolina," said Brian Phelps, student body vice president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Phelps, a member of a UNC-Chapel Hill task force that recommends tuition policy to the university's Board of Trustees, believes the proposal is a positive step toward keeping tuition manageable.

"It's important for families to know exactly how much it's going to cost, or a ballpark figure of what it's going to cost," he said.

Over the past six years, for example, tuition increases have erratic, increasing 20.5 percent for the 2001-2002 school year and 24.7 percent the following school year. In 2003-2004, it increased by 5 percent, and in 2005-2006, there was a zero percent increase. This academic year, average tuition increased 12.1 percent.

The current in-state tuition at UNC-Chapel Hill is $4,876 per semester. A 6.5 percent increase would raise tuition by about $317. (Currently, out-of-state students pay $19,523. The proposal calls of out-of-state tuition to stay below the top 25 percent highest tuition at similar schools.)

Bowles' plan is also designed to enhance education. Campuses would be required to reserve at least 25 percent of tuition for financial aid and another 25 percent for faculty raises until salaries fell within the 80th percentile of peer campuses.

Annual tuition increases also could shift to counter changes in state funding. If appropriations from the General Assembly fluctuated from 6 percent, tuition caps the following year would counter the change by the same percent value.

For example, if the General Assembly approved a 7 percent increase in university funding -- 1 percentage point higher than the expected 6 percent -- tuition would be allowed to increase the following year by only 5.5 percent, or 1 percentage point lower than the normal 6.5 percent annual cap.

Although the proposal does not outline specific details for what would happen should funding plummet, there is a clause that allows campuses to ask for tuition hikes above 6.5 percent if there are "unmet needs."

"I think it's realistic," said state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, who likes the idea of the funding cap, but realizes there are other driving forces.

"What finally decides these things, very often, is how much money we have in the budget," she added.

In August, a public policy group warned the university system could face a lawsuit for increasing tuition seven times in eight years.

The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research issued a report that said the UNC board approved tuition increases annually from 1999 through 2002, and the Legislature approved an increase on its own in 2003.

The increases resulted in a 71 percent increase in undergraduate, in-state tuition over the period, according to the center.

The group would not comment on Bowles' proposal on Monday, saying it wanted more time to review the plan.


Kelcey Carlson, Reporter
Richard Adkins, Photographer
Kelly Gardner, Web Editor

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