Thursday, January 8, 2009

State universities: Raise tuition or not?

Tons of information about tuition, fees and financial aid flowed to the UNC system's governing board this morning. But board members didn't get a firm answer to one question asked over and over: How will the issue of tuition and fee increases for in-state students play with the 2009 General Assembly?

Here's the central question on their minds. Which is a better strategy: Hold the line on tuition in a difficult recession and take a chance lawmakers whose schools might have been spurned will take matters into their own hands and raise tuition with legislation? (Or that lawmakers will simply starve universities?) Or raise tuition and fees and risk the ire of lawmakers and citizens who say the UNC leadership does not understand the stress Tar Heel families are experiencing?

UNC system president Erskine Bowles has worked members of the legislature masterfully in his three years. He's almost never not in the know. But he did not have a good answer today for his board.

"I hear different things from different people in key places," he said.

That makes the decision coming in February about whether to raise the price of college in North Carolina even trickier.

One thing is certain: The stretch of flush budgets the state's universities have enjoyed since 2006 has ended. Bowles made it clear to board members the 5 percent reversions in this year's budget aren't coming back.

"Once a cut goes in, it rarely gets restored. ... " he said. "We have a 5 percent reversion for one year. Going forward, that 5 percent will be permanent."

-- Posted by Mary Schulken