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Now What, UNC?

August 23rd, 2020

The UNC System will not alter or refund student fees for the 2020-2021 academic year, the Board of Governors decided in its July meeting. From the perspective of the Board, the university system must continue to operate and provide essential services not just for today’s students, but for posterity. The coronavirus pandemic presents a unique set of challenges; in addition to a public health crisis, a recession is exacting a large human toll across our nation. This toll is all the more insidious due to the economic inequalities that cause the health and economic damages to fall unequally and inequitably in society. During a time when families are struggling to afford healthcare, let alone send their kids to college, why are current students not the Board’s first priority?

After a series of COVID-19 clusters popped up during the first week of classes, UNC-Chapel Hill decided to shift all undergraduate instruction to remote learning. With students back with their families, the funds typically used to pay for food, healthcare, internet capabilities, activities and entertainment at school should stay in the home. For many families, even moving their children out of residence halls will be a financial hardship. Since the university typically charges less for online courses than face-to-face ones, students deserve a refund for the difference in a return of fees paid for facilities like gyms and other amenities that they cannot use during remote instruction. Isn’t a university education just like any other service, like Amazon Prime or going to a restaurant? What are students really paying for?

According to the UNC-Chapel Hill Admissions website, the annual full-time tuition rate for in-state students is $9,018 with out-of-state students paying $36,000 per academic year. This cost factors in nearly $2,000 of fees, all rendered pointless if students are no longer on campus. The University Cashier’s office breakdowns these fees for 2019-2020, showing that almost $400 goes toward student activities. Student activities are non-academic services that fund student unions, intramural facilities, student organizations, newspapers, yearbooks, and entertainment programs. With a completely remote semester ahead, where are these “student activity” fees going and why should students have to pay them?

The report also indicated that nearly $300 of fees fund intercollegiate athletics. On Wednesday, the school announced it was suspending all athletic activities until 5 p.m. Thursday due to the upward trend in positive COVID-19 tests on campus. On Friday, a cluster was found in Carmichael residence hall, where student-athletes are typically housed, and UNC football did not return to the practice field. Student-athletes are students first and if classes cannot happen this semester, sports shouldn’t either. More importantly, student funds shouldn’t be used to pay for unsafe activities –– especially when these activities only support university gain. It doesn’t seem like students, now or in the future, are at the forefront of this university’s agenda.

Despite internet memes about UNC-Chapel Hill becoming the “University of North Carolina at Zoom,” online classes are still not comparable to a typical online education like DeVry University. Students can recognize that at the end of the day, they are still receiving, and paying for, a degree from one of the top public universities in the country. That being said, it is the school’s responsibility to provide what students are paying for. While offering housing refunds to students in residence halls is a step in the right direction, UNC-Chapel Hill is leaving out the majority of students off-campus.

Amid a pandemic and a steep descent into recession, the university has a responsibility to prioritize students facing hardship today. The next step UNC-Chapel Hill should take, despite the Board of Governors’ July meeting, is to reconsider pocketing fees and return that money to students.

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