UNC’s Middle Class Squeeze

As a North Carolina State University senior, I am upset over the new increase in tuition, which goes into effect next month. Tuition will rise by $750. This is on top of a previously established rise of $150, resulting in a total increase of $900—a 19 percent jump over 2009-10.

In my view, North Carolina is missing something. Yes, we have the best barbecue in the world, but we have a problem with cutting budgets. We are in a recession but the state government is not willing to reduce expenditures. No one in authority made the necessary tough decisions, and now they are passing the burden for balancing the budget to North Carolina families.

The buck has been passed from the Governor to the legislature to the President of the UNC System and the Board of Governors to the universities, and now to students and their families, including me. I have nobody to pass on this $900 budgetary decision to.

The new school year begins on August 18, which is not much time to come up with an additional $750. Do the officials who made these decisions think that college students have money just lying around? I recently bought a new computer for almost the cost of the increase. If I had known about the tuition increase I wouldn’t have made that purchase. The university has turned my good, thoughtful financial decision into a bad decision, all because it refuses to cut spending.

I am a student who pays my own way with merit scholarships and money I earn by working. I come from a middle-class family in Davidson County—my father is a minister and my mother a homemaker. Because of their income, I don’t qualify for financial aid from the federal government (and I do not want it, anyway). My parents believe that, if I pay for my own tuition, as they did, I will value my education more and consider it an investment in my future rather than a gift. This is not the easiest lifestyle a young person can choose. A student paying his or her own way is comparable to a small business owner, who must work day and night to prosper. But despite all the effort, my personal investment has increased my dedication and has made me appreciate my education more.

I am determined to graduate with no debt, and in order for me to keep my head above water while balancing tuition, rent, books, and living expenses I have had to work. I have had a job steadily since I was 15 years old. I came to school under the impression that I should focus on my studies and spend all my resources devoted to my books, but I quickly came to realize that I needed a job.

In my second semester, I began an on-campus job at the university bookstore in the shipping and receiving department. Later in my junior year, I started a second job at the North Carolina General Assembly, on the days that I don’t work at the first job. During the summers I have worked very long hours to save for school. One summer I worked on an assembly line at a window plant, washed golf carts at a country club, and did landscaping before, after, and in between my other jobs. I even ran my landscaping business out of my college dorm room once I got back to school. I was easily working 80+ hours a week. Except for a few months at a time I have continuously held two jobs throughout my college career. This is not a bad thing and I am very proud of what I have done; I have learned responsibility and real-world skills that you don’t learn in school.

I also have a problem with the fact that the school is charging me more in order to provide financial aid for others. North Carolina State’s chancellor Randy Woodson stated that he is very proud of  “honor[ing] our historical commitment by setting aside 20 percent of the increase for need-based financial aid.”

That is very generous of him. That 20 percent is not coming out of his pockets, however. It’s coming out of mine.

Education bureaucrats seem to think that it is okay to discriminate against upper and middle-class students financially because of their parents’ status. It doesn’t matter if someone was raised in a mansion on Figure Eight Island or in a cardboard box on Fayetteville Street; people from both backgrounds have the same opportunity to flip burgers while in school for four years and both have the same opportunity to pay off loans when they graduate. Two people I know received $21,000 and $16,000 in financial aid respectively. That puts their annual income—without working at all—above the poverty line and over the annual income of someone who works 40 hours a week on minimum wage.

Students also have a misunderstanding. Some of us think that college is a right—something we deserve as citizens. Not everyone who goes to college is necessarily right for college. We need to stop believing this entitlement myth and make college something worth working for.

I am not complaining about paying more for my education; in fact I believe I should pay much more, but boot-strapping tuition increases mere days before school starts should be made illegal. The recent increase has not been properly vetted by the public. The legislature should enact protections for students, so that at least a semester’s notice is required before an increase of this magnitude takes place. Also, there should be a legal control that caps the amount that tuition can be raised each year to enable students to plan for and come up with the required tuition.

It’s time to lose this notion that parents’ money equals children’s money, and time to put everyone on an equal playing field once they leave the nest. Government should not be rewarding or punishing people because they grew up rich or poor.

The state should follow the same budget process that a family must follow. When times are tough, you tighten your belt and cut spending. The failure by the state to apply common sense to the budget puts a great strain on families who send their children to our public universities. It also sets a bad precedent and an even worse model for government. Because the system managed to preserve almost the entire university budget, programs that should be cut or reduced were again fully funded. Recessions are somewhat of a natural cycle to eliminate waste, duplication and luxury in government. By raising tuition so drastically, the state is bypassing this natural process of improving efficiency in order to pander for votes.