By Lindsay Marchello and Kari Travis
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH – The University of North Carolina Board of Governors is keeping tuition and fees the same no matter what happens with COVID-19. But while UNC insists the value of classes remains high – even when those classes are held via Zoom – students tell Carolina Journal this isn’t the college experience they paid for.
Tuition and fees have been a hot topic for the board since February, when it began considering whether UNC schools would raise prices for the coming academic year. Student fees at some UNC schools are nearly as much as resident tuition, CJ reported. In May, UNC decided to freeze tuition and fees due to COVID-19 and its economic consequences. But on Thursday, July 23, the BOG passed a resolution to keep those costs the same even if universities pivot to online classes, which means cutting on-campus student services. Under the resolution, universities can’t issue refunds.
That decision doesn’t sit well with students like Kelly VonEnde and Olivia Tikalsky, who will be seniors this year at UNC Charlotte.
VonEnde, a criminal justice and political science major from New Jersey, was unhappy with her semester bill, which charges full tuition and fees for the fall. Four of her five classes are online. Her bill totals $10,265.
Tikalsky, an in-state student majoring in health systems management, will be taking only online classes this semester. She, too, will pay full in-state tuition and fees.
Both students worry about cost. Both are frustrated that they’ll still pay a $123.50 health services fee, even though they likely won’t use the campus health center, which closed during the height of the statewide shutdown. Both question the $480 parking pass that was partially refunded to students last semester, but will be charged in full this fall.
“Now you’ve already billed me for these services, but I’m not sure I’m gonna get those services,” VonEnde told CJ. “It’s extraordinarily frustrating, because as an out-of-state student, I have to pay extra rent to live in Charlotte.”
“I was expecting a different product when I agreed to pay this money,” she said.
VonEnde and Tikalsky told CJ they’d not asked UNC Charlotte about becoming distance-learning students — a registration type with lower tuition and fee charges.
“I’m not even certain who you would talk to,” VonEnde said.
Did UNC ever consider a prorated tuition and fees offer for students like VonEnde? CJ asked BOG Chairman Randy Ramsey and UNC System interim President Bill Roper Thursday.
They skirted the question.
“Today, our Board of Governors made it very clear tuition and fees for the instruction that is given with all the support of the campuses would not be prorated, and the tuition and fees would remain in effect for this entire school calendar year,” Ramsey said during a news conference.
The board debated the tuition and fees issue and took a position on it, Roper simply said.
Neither Roper nor Ramsey said what kind of relief a student like VonEnde could receive from the UNC system.
BOG members Marty Kotis, Thom Goolsby, Steve Long, Pearl Burris-Floyd, Reginald Holley and Anna Nelson voted against the resolution.
A Zoom class is not as robust as a fully developed online program, Kotis said during a July 22 budget and finance committee meeting.
Kotis questioned why students should pay for recreational centers if the governor has issued an executive order closing them.
Other board members countered that tuition and fees should stay in place to preserve campus operations.
In a March 20 email to Kotis, Philip Dubois, former chancellor of UNC Charlotte, warned that campus housing and dining reserves would take a significant hit if universities sent out refunds.
“No students means no revenue, which will require access to housing and dining reserves to the extent that they exist to pay bond obligations,” Dubois said. “If we prematurely reduce those reserves to grant refunds now, then we have a serious problem.”
Universities could offer refunds if the General Assembly approved a bailout plan to cover the cost, Dubois said.
Students paid for shelter and food, but the universities are denying those services and keeping the money, Kotis shot back in the email.
“Let them eat brioche, then, is what the campuses are communicating to the students and families who need those dollars today?” Kotis said.
Athletics, health services, student activities, educational tech, debt services, and campus security are the core six fees students must pay.
Regular term students must pay all six, while distance-ed students, or students who have no physical presence on campus, have to pay only educational tech and campus security fees.
Even if universities return to mostly online learning, students will still be considered regular-term students.
While the classes may go online, the result is the same, said BOG member Terry Hutchens. Students will still receive credits for the courses they complete.
The results may be the same, but the quality of the education is not, said Isaiah Greene, the student member of the BOG.
Meantime, Wake Technical Community College and other N.C. community colleges have waived their fees.
“We won’t be providing some of the things you should expect for most types of semesters — events and activities on campus that would be the norm during a normal time,” Scott Ralls, president of Wake Tech, said in a video sent to students.
On the flipside, the BOG has created a task force looking at the long-term sustainability of the tuition and fees model. BOG member Alex Mitchell will head the group. The first report is due in October.
The tuition and fees process is complicated, Ramsey said.
The task force will study various tuition and fee models, including a pay-per-credit system, the board chairman said.
The goal is to end up with a model that families and college students can understand and see where their money is going, Ramsey said.
Meanwhile, VonEnde, Tikalsky and other UNC System students like them will continue paying full price, hoping they get their money’s worth this fall.
But without any guarantees – and no refunds if campuses don’t offer the services students are taking out loans to pay for.
“How is that fair, if you’re not going to provide the product we paid for, how are you justifying that?” VonEnde said, speaking to UNC Charlotte and UNC leaders. “Especially since you refunded [some of our costs] last year? We’re taking the whole liability of COVID for you?”