Publication - Technician (
Publication Status - Published, 10/03/05

Higher Tuition a Better Deal? (Part II)
Posted: 10.03.05
T. Greg Doucette

A few weeks ago we briefly looked into the economics of the tuition and fee process, and how increases in the total cost of attendance relative to peer institutions force the Administration to improve N.C. State's academic standing in order to continue attracting top-quality students. With new fee increase proposals available for public scrutiny this week, the mechanics of that process also deserve consideration.

Like any situation where laws for the many are written by a few, influence and persuasion are the currency of choice and achieving any degree of success requires a clear understanding of the game, the stakes and the rules of engagement. At its core everything can be reduced to a budgetary chess match, with victory going to whichever side can think several levels deeper than the opposition. Mental flexibility is a prerequisite and properly framing the debate is critical.

Unfortunately the groups advocating for students in the review process occasionally find themselves among the more politically tone-deaf on campus. The tuition autonomy debate from the this summer serves as an example. If you missed it, N.C. Senate President Pro-Tem-for-Life Marc Basnight and his hatchet man Senator Tony Rand essentially proposed a quick way to marginalize the UNC Board of Governors and move us toward the Virginia model of running a university system: turning flagship institutions designed to serve the State's sons and daughters into inaccessible havens for the rich.

The concept never got off the ground, but the spin put on its defeat from student leaders signaled a disconnect from reality with the phrase "a big win for students" turning up more than once. The defeat of tuition autonomy was only "a big win for students" in the sense that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were "big wins for the Japanese": it just stopped a bad catastrophe from getting worse. By proposing autonomy, Basnight and Rand have provided political cover for NCSU and UNC to enact any size tuition increase they like, while in the long-term ensuring that comprehensive Board of Governors reform, pledged for over a decade, will now take a back seat to abolishing the Board outright.

It is inevitable that student leaders feel compelled to lay on the hyperbole to generate a sense of accomplishment. But this time around those leaders cannot afford to waste intellectual capital on side issues while other options go unexplored. Here are just a few of the possibilities the Student Government could advocate, suggested by a sample of the students they represent --

* Cost of Attendance Pegs. Promoted by some members of the Faculty Senate for years, each student would have tuition and fee rates guaranteed for their first 4 years at N.C. State. It is disappointing this option has not been taken seriously before, as it simplifies the debate over tuition increases by excluding current students from its impact -- and produces an added incentive to graduate in four years. Arguments that individualized rates complicate billing are disingenuous; the real question is whether the University would accept foregoing the instant gratification of current increases.

* Fee Caps and Aggregate Increase Limits. Without cost of attendance pegs, the Administration could also cap student fees to a set percentage of tuition. This would encourage greater efficiency in the units funded by those fees and would also force the University to adopt priorities in deciding what gets funded and what doesn't. In addition, limiting cumulative tuition and fee increases to a specific dollar amount would also serve this purpose and help ensure that academically qualified students don't find themselves leaving school because of finances.

* Lobbying to Eliminate Stafford Loan Limits. A long shot, but with some on campus feeling it's appropriate for Student Government to comment on the Patriot Act it certainly wouldn't hurt. Limits on Stafford loans were implemented to counteract higher default rates and prevent excessive subversion of the free market. But the free market has already failed profoundly with educational loans, and revisions to bankruptcy laws make it nearly impossible for students to escape their student loan obligations. With no real means to restrain the explosion in higher education expenses, providing a financial aid lifeline to students makes sound public policy.

If the Student Government is going to have measurable influence on the upcoming debate, it will need to demonstrate agility and a willingness to move beyond its old "OMGnomoretuition" paradigm. These are just a few of the options they can choose. Let's hope they're up to the challenge.

Tell Greg he's politically tone-deaf at, or send your comments to the Campus Forum at

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