Understanding Chapel Hill’s Tuition Giveaway

A new family-income policy may put more minority students in the applicant pool.

On July 7, UNC-Chapel Hill announced a policy change. Beginning in 2024, the UNC System’s flagship will waive tuition and fees for in-state students whose family income is below or at $80,000.

Of course, it’s not a bad thing for wealthy universities to offer substantial financial aid to those in need. Such assistance has benefited countless students over the years. With the recent rise in inflation, it makes sense for wealthy public universities to raise the family-income threshold for a student to receive significant aid. Indeed, as WRAL Investigates recently determined, “in real dollar-to-dollar comparisons, the price to attend college [has] jumped 17% at UNC-Chapel Hill.”

Yet, wonderful as it may seem to be offering free tuition to lower-income students, there remains the issue that one student’s tuition dollar often pays for another student’s financial aid at UNC-CH. The UNC Board of Governors limited this practice in 2014 by capping at 15 percent the amount of tuition revenue that could be allocated to need-based scholarships. In light of the obvious riches that have made UNC-CH’s new financial-aid policy possible, however, the practice should be done away with entirely. Furthermore, and additionally, UNC-CH should consider upping the threshold at which the university’s latest generosity ceases.

One student’s tuition dollar often pays for another student’s financial aid.Although the UNC System holds endowments of more than $10 billion (over $5 billion of which belongs to UNC-CH), the flagship has obviously decided not to set the income threshold higher than $80,000. By contrast, as the Raleigh News and Observer notes, “Duke University announced it would begin offering free tuition this fall to students of families from North Carolina … who make $150,000 or less.”

Is UNC-CH low-balling their prospective students to target a certain demographic? Daniel Klasik, a UNC professor of education, certainly had no qualms about saying recently that “traditionally underrepresented racial minority students tend to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.” Though UNC-CH has now officially barred admissions counselors from considering an applicant’s race, it’s hard not to see the latest move as an attempt to put more minority students in the applicant pool, generally.

Increasing the enrollment of students from underserved counties is part of the UNC System’s Higher Expectations Strategic Plan. If the new tuition offer’s income threshold were $90,000, $100,000, or even $150,000, as is the case for Duke, it might be harder for university officials to direct their generosity to “desired” applicants in a disproportionate way. (Many, though not all, of the counties identified as “underserved” have higher-than-average minority populations.) Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has said that UNC-CH expects that perhaps 150-200 additional students will benefit from the policy change. While that number may be concerningly low to those who worry about the strategic plan, one activist recently told the News and Observer that “eliminating legacy admissions preferences for [the] children of alumni” could serve as an additional way to increase diversity. That’s not a bad idea.

One hopes that, in the future, admission to all colleges and universities will be, first and foremost, merit-based. Maybe then, financial aid will be less controversial and simply a good use of wealthy universities’ robust endowments.

Teresa Lichtenwalner graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016 with a degree in English and taught middle-school English for three years at parochial schools in North Carolina.