The Supreme Court of Missouri discarded the University of Missouri System’s appeal in a class-action lawsuit contending that the system violated state law for almost two decades by charging tuition to in-state undergraduates. The appeal stemmed from a ruling late last year that the University of Missouri illegally collected hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition from in-state students since 1986. The judgment was based on an 1889 state law that entitled Missouri residents to a free education.
It is estimated that over 250,000 Missouri students were illegally charged tuition, but because of statutes of limitations, up to 150,000 students are eligible for monetary relief or educational vouchers. It is estimated that the system may have to pay up to $450 million, plus interest, in damages. To put that number in perspective, the Missouri University system receives less money than that annually from the Missouri state legislature. That is almost the equivalent of shutting down multiple campuses of the University of North Carolina system.
Before 1986, the University of Missouri charged students a small flat fee to attend school. But then the university system began charging students tuition, or as system officials call it “educational fees,” based on the number of credit hours and classes a student was taking. This system of assessing tuition and fee charges is found throughout the country and is the same one employed by the University of North Carolina system.
Sound familiar? Well, North Carolina has a similar provision about education, but instead of state law, it is found in the state constitution. Article IX, Section 9 of the state constitution reads the “Benefits of public institutions of higher education…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.”
In light of recent proposed and dramatic tuition increases across the UNC System, including N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill, the time has come to launch our own lawsuit against the state and the university. Over the next few weeks, a team of attorneys and other professionals will be recruited to assist in this lawsuit. A Web site will be established that will allow N.C. students, families and graduates to access additional information and learn how to join the class action suit. Ultimately, we will ask the court to issue an injunction for increases and ask that the state refund tuition costs for overcharged students.
As someone who has been fighting unreasonable tuition increases for a number of years, I don’t believe anybody wanted this matter to be settled in court. I would have rather seen the issue resolved by the General Assembly as constitutionally mandated. Instead, the legislature failed to adequately fund the university system and allowed campuses to increase tuition at dramatic rates and for laughable reasons.
Students and their families would not be the first group to bring a lawsuit against the state. Low-income school districts sued the state to bring fairness and parity in the way K-12 education is funded. A couple of years ago, N.C. taxpayers sued the state over double taxation and received court ordered reimbursements. Currently, there are dozens of municipalities that are suing the state over funds that were seized to plug gaps in the state’s budget deficit.
The students that brought the lawsuit against the state of Missouri did not sue just to gain financially, even though it looks like Missouri students are owed between $2,000 and $3,500 for each semester they attended the university. They litigated because they felt the state had an obligation to uphold the laws it passes. This is especially true when University of Missouri officials were arguing that “educational fees” were not the same as tuition.
The same can be said for our lawsuit. I am not in this just for the money. I want the state of North Carolina and its elected officials in the General Assembly to voluntarily oblige by its own laws – its own constitution. Because they have not been able to do this, then the only other course of action is to bring about a lawsuit.
I am tired of listening to administrators banter about how they don’t want to increase tuition but they have to because of the General Assembly’s budget cuts. I am tired of the state hiding behind the facade of “low tuition.” I am tired of tuition increases. I am tired of qualified students being forced out of higher educational opportunities because of their economic background.
Public Notice: The time for debating tuition is over – I’ll see you in court.
Imagine if students sued North Carolina over illegally assessed tuition charges. I know my tenure here at NCSU hasn’t produced an education free of expense. You may argue tuition in North Carolina is one of the lowest in the nation, and I would agree. However, tuition only makes up one-third of the total cost of higher education. The state constitution doesn’t guarantee low tuition — it guarantees low-cost higher education. The average student attending a public university will spend approximately $16,000 per year* to attend one of North Carolina’s campuses.
So let me ask, is $16,000 a year low-cost education? Is the state extending the benefits of higher education to all people in this state? I would argue the answer is, unfortunately, no.
Here is my proposal. Students — past and present — who have attended one of the 16 campuses of the University of North Carolina system should bring forth a class action lawsuit against the state of North Carolina and the General Assembly for not upholding their constitutional responsibilities. If the state of North Carolina, like the state of Missouri, cannot voluntarily abide by its own laws, then the only other course of action is to bring a lawsuit.
Students would not be the first to take such an action. Lower-income school districts, taxpayers and municipalities have or are taking financial shots at the state. Why should students be forced to pay each year for increasing higher education costs when the General Assembly has a clear responsibility?
I don’t care if the state is in a budget crisis or not. If the state doesn’t want to live up to its obligation, then change the constitution. But don’t put on a facade that, just because the public tuition is low in North Carolina, higher education is affordable.
If the ruling in Missouri is upheld, the university system will be devastated financially. That is not what I want in North Carolina, nor is it the reason I am bringing suit against the General Assembly.
I want the higher education in North Carolina to be truly affordable and open to every qualified citizen no matter his or her economic background. The University of North Carolina has too many opportunities wasted because someone was locked out financially.
*The post was originally written from 2002-2004, and portions have been previously published.
“University of Missouri Tuition Lawsuit”
Michele Norris discusses the case with Bob Herman, a lawyer for the students who brought the suit.