RALEIGH — The University of North Carolina System will not raise tuition and fees this year while students and their families struggle to stay financially afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s a good start, one expert says, but UNC should use this time to reconsider its approach to affordable higher education.

In an action-packed meeting Wednesday, the UNC Board of Governors unanimously voted to keep tuition and fees flat for the 2020-21 school year. It was a switch from conversations held a few months ago, when the board was considering an average tuition hike of 2.7 percent for new resident undergraduates.

They also were looking to raise mandatory student fees an average of 2.4 percent. But when the coronavirus hit North Carolina, crippling its economy and sending hundreds of thousands of people to the unemployment office, board members decided against raising prices, BOG Chairman Randy Ramsey said.

“We take tuition and fees very seriously,” Ramsey said at a news conference after the meeting. “We try to consider how this is going to affect people. We believed the people of North Carolina had enough burden.”

The decision to keep tuition and fees flat this year is a good one, said Joe Coletti, senior fellow for fiscal and tax policy at the John Locke Foundation. But UNC should continue to cut costs — even when not facing a crisis.

“If UNC ends up with more online classes, schools may even need to reduce tuition this year,” Coletti said.

In North Carolina, affordable higher education is a constitutional right for residents, and several cost regulations are in play. In addition to passing NC Promise in 2016 — a program slashing tuition at three UNC schools — the General Assembly capped student fee increases at 3 percent, and enacted fixed tuition for resident students who complete their degree in four years.

UNC owes it to residents to keep college affordable, said board member Marty Kotis, and the system should consider raising tuition and fees for out-of-state students as a way to defray costs for North Carolinians.

That’s something the system may consider in the future, UNC interim President Bill Roper said.

For now, system employees are working around the clock to move UNC past the pandemic and into the fall semester, Roper said.

“We are totally focused on how to serve North Carolina while spending less,” Roper said in an address to board members.

Roper, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CEO of UNC Health Care, said he’s optimistic fall classes will open on campus.

What will revenue look like? “We really won’t know these things until we open in August,” Roper said.

One thing is certain. With leaders of the General Assembly projecting shortfalls of $4 billion in the state’s budget for next year, the university will be short money.

The state has fallen behind on income due to a delayed tax filing deadline of July 15. While North Carolina has enough money to make it through the end of this fiscal year, lawmakers still are waiting to see what the final tally will look like for 2020-21.

Where might UNC cut spending? CJ asked Roper. And what do UNC’s revenue shortfalls actually look like?

“We’re intently working on those very matters,” Roper answered, “but I’m not ready to talk about what the changes in revenue and changes in expenses will be.”

It likely will be July before the university sees final numbers, Roper said.

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, BOG member Tom Fetzer, whose name is tangled up in several board controversies, resigned his position, effective immediately. Fetzer is a lobbyist, former Raleigh mayor and long-time Republican activist and consultant.

Fetzer said he’s leaving the board to focus on homeschooling his five children. CJ asked BOG Chairman Ramsey if there was any other reason for Fetzer’s resignation. Ramsey said he wasn’t aware of any other issues with Fetzer.

Carolina Journal News Service stories are provided by the John Locke Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization in Raleigh.