school books, budget, piggy bank college generic

Just because Gov. Roy Cooper and the N.C. General Assembly are Murphy-to-Manteo apart on the state budget doesn't mean they can't get a few things done. While I was out on vacation, the governor signed into law a new measure that does away with the UNC System's annoying tuition surcharge.

The tuition surcharge was a stick in state law used to herd UNC System students toward graduation as quickly as possible. The surcharge was paid by two types of students: those who needed more than four years and 140 credit hours to complete a four-year undergraduate degree — most programs take at least 120 hours to complete — and those who needed took more than five years and 110 percent of the required credit hours to earn a five-year degree.

Failed and uncompleted courses counted toward the 140-credit limit; summer school classes and Advanced Placement credit didn't. Students in the military or with severe medical problems or other hardships could apply for a waiver. 

The surcharge, first levied in 1994, was 25 percent. The state raised it to 50 percent in 2010. In today's dollars, the surcharge for a student taking a full course load would add $1,100 or so to the semester bill. (I used UNCG's in-state tuition prices for 2019-20 as the example here because its prices are roughly at the system's midpoint; because tuition prices range widely across the system, the surcharge varied among schools.)

In theory, it wasn't too hard to hit the credit-hour limit, which worked out to about five to seven extra courses. If a student drops out of school toward the end of a semester, for instance, that's four or five courses right there. A change in major late in a student's college tenure could have the same effect. If you're interested in the complexities of the surcharge, this FAQ from UNCG gives a good rundown.

But not too many students paid the surcharge. According to this 2012 report from the legislature's Fiscal Research Division, only a few thousand undergrads across the UNC System paid the surcharge each semester. That's roughly 3 percent or so of all undergrads, according to my back-of-the-envelope math.

But the report doesn't have any way of showing how many students might have been deterred by this extra expense. As bill sponsor Sen. Jim Perry of Wayne County told reporters earlier this month, the surcharge "was really impacting non-traditional students who were making attempts to improve their personal productivity" — veterans, former community college students (who tend to be older than your traditional-aged college student) and other adults whose collegiate careers are marked by a lot of stops, starts and detours. 

The UNC System still has a couple of carrots to dangle in front of students to keep them moving toward a degree. One is the fixed tuition program for students who stay enrolled in consecutive semesters through graduation. Another was a recent reduction in the number of credit hours required to graduate. The new standard is 120 or just a little bit over; many undergrad programs had been creeping up toward 130 hours.

Meanwhile, the governor's office and the legislature are having what amounts to a stick fight over the budget. Maybe they all need to share a few bunches of carrots? 

Have something to say about the blog post above? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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