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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Is The UNC System 'As Free As Practicable'?

Tom Bullock

North Carolina’s state constitution says the price of higher education should be free.

Well, sort of: it says the UNC system should be as free as practicable.

That leaves a lot to interpretation. So what does “free as practicable” actually mean for North Carolina residents? This week, WFAE explores the cost of the UNC System to students and universities.  We'll explain where the money goes when students and parents write that tuition check, and we'll analyze how much it actually costs to educate different students.

This morning, we start with the long, drawn-out version of the phrase enshrined in the state constitution:

"The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense."

Some version of that has been in our state constitution since 1868, but it’s never actually been free. When UNC-Chapel Hill first opened in the late 1700s, tuition started at $8.  

John Sanders was the director for the UNC Institute of Government off and on from the 1960s to the 1990s. He knows the history of "as free as practicable" as well as anyone.  

"It was not seen as a mandate to set them up and operate them without cost to the students, but rather to set them up to prepare teachers for the public schools or be citizens for other walks of life," he says.

It's the idea that higher education is a public good, and therefore your tax dollars should help pay for it.

That makes sense to Carter Quinn, a UNC-Chapel Hill student from Carrboro. But when he hears "as free as practicable," he thinks about his dad. 

"My dad paid for his own education by working at a deli," Quinn says. "You cannot do that today. I could not make $12,000, $14,000 a year and go to school full time. It's just impractical."

Part 2: In UNC System, Where Does Your Money Go?
Part 3: In-State Students Pay Less Than Half What Their UNC Education Costs

Since the 1970s, tuition and fees at public universities have more than tripled nationwide, according to the College Board. That’s adjusted for inflation.

Among the 16 college campuses in the UNC system, tuition and fees for in-state students over the past 10 years have jumped from an average of $3,300 to $6,200. That doesn’t include the cost of housing. 

"I think this is a national tragedy in the making," UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois says. It’s not that the cost to colleges has increased that dramatically. It's just that state lawmakers are picking up a smaller part of the tab. 

"What you have seen over roughly the last decade, is a move from where a student could attend the university and pay about 20 percent of the cost of their education, they're now paying about 40 percent," Dubois says.

That’s still less than in most states. We'll delve further into what percentage of your education you actually pay for later in our series.

Anyway, lawmakers cite the recession and slow recovery as big reasons for the recent shift. They had to balance the budget, and that meant big cuts.

Chancellor Dubois recognizes that reality. He says the challenge is finding a reasonable balance between what students and the state should pay. 

"I would like to see us move back in the direction of something like a 75/25 if we could," he says. "The state has the biggest obligation to fund public higher education, and the students should have some skin in the game, too.  You can debate how much skin is appropriate."

You sure can.

That's exactly what lawmakers did when we asked them about this. Here's Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Mecklenburg County. 

"There’s not a magic number to pull out of a rabbit’s hat because it’s going to vary based on cost, based on teachers' and professors' salaries," he says. "There are just so many factors that go into what is tuition."

And here's House Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County: "Free doesn’t mean no payment at all, but it certainly should be something a middle class, working class family can afford," she says.

Since the 2010 elections, Republicans in the General Assembly have called the shots. Rep. Craig Horn from Union County helps write the House's education budget. 

"We can certainly take money from highways - oh no, we better not do that; people drive on highways," he says. "Well, where do we get the money? Whoa, I know, we could raise taxes! But my experience is raising taxes makes poor people poorer, so I don't really think that's such a good idea either."

In fact, North Carolina's Republican lawmakers and governor have cut income taxes. The legislature's fiscal research team reports the cuts cost North Carolina $680 million in revenue last year.

Rep. Horn says budget writing is a balancing act - and there are 120 members of the House and 50 members of the Senate, all with their own priorities. 

"That's the legislative process, is try to create some kind of reasonable, sensible balance," he says. "You don't wave a magic wand and find that answer. I'd love to find the book where, oh there, page 37, line 6, there's the answer! But it's not there."

But there is an answer: it's what students are paying now. 

So here's what "as free as practicable" means in North Carolina: $6,182. That's the average cost of tuition and fees in the UNC-system for in-state students.

Wednesday we'll look at where that money goes, and explain how when it comes to higher education, you don't pay for what you get.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.