No reason to worry about the students who traveled to Chapel Hill a few days ago to protest tuition increases at their respective University of North Carolina campuses. They may be in debt right now, but their assets were also on display as they worked the room at the UNC-CH Alumni Center–the beautifully appointed George Watts Hill Alumni Center, that is, where the elite meet and greet. They’ve learned to network. University officials don’t intimidate them. Indeed, one student said that from now on, he and the others should be referred to as “adult students,” not lumped in dismissively with younger kids.

Or take Andrew Payne. He will be $20,000-plus in debt this spring when he graduates from N.C. State. But he’ll have two degrees in engineering and environmental science. He’ll also have two years under his belt as student body president at State and a year as president of the 16-campus UNC Association of Student Governments, which makes him a non-voting member of the UNC Board of Governors as well.

The upshot of Payne’s education is that, when he was pitted in a panel discussion against five big-shots, including UNC President Molly Broad and state Sen. Howard Lee, all of whom think tuition increases are OK, Payne held his own and made the students’ case clearly.

The General Assembly, Payne said, is ignoring the state constitution’s mandate that a UNC education shall, “as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.” Keep it up, he added, “and somebody is going to sue.”

Free of expense “as far as practicable”? What does that mean? One thing it doesn’t mean, historically, is free. Elsewhere, the state constitution plainly calls for free public schools. But the language covering UNC, which pre-dates its founding in 1789 (the original state constitution called in 1776 for university instruction “at low prices”), has always been hedged. Low tuition was seen as a good, democratic goal, because otherwise only sons of the rich would attend. But the state had no general tax powers, and it funded UNC for a century from donations and land sales. Tuition in 1845-46, for example, was $50, and total expenses–including wood, candles and servants–were estimated at $170.

Today, the issue is similar. Should the state raise taxes on those who can afford it in order to keep UNC’s costs down? Or should adult students be expected to dig deeper for their education, even if they have to borrow heavily to do it?

In recent years, state leaders have let UNC increase tuitions–and tuitions may go much higher in the future–on the theory that to do otherwise is to give students from well-off families too easy a ride. Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, for one, has proposed putting tuitions on a sliding scale, according to ability to pay. Sen. Lee, a Chapel Hill Democrat and the powerful co-chair of the appropriations committee, says average taxpayers don’t like the idea that they’re paying for the rich kids. “Those who can afford to pay more should be put in a position to do it,” he says.

Lee’s not endorsing a sliding-scale system–yet. But what he says could amount to the same thing. “Consideration should be given,” he says, to raising tuitions even higher, in part so that the extra money can finance scholarships for students from needy families. (The rest is needed to improve faculty salaries and facilities so UNC is “a great, not just a good, university.”) No one should be denied access for lack of money, Lee says.

But Payne and a number of his fellow student leaders argue that high tuitions really are a way of letting rich folks off the hook–except, of course, for the few with children currently enrolled–when it comes to paying for a university system that is an economic engine for everyone in the state. Meanwhile, they wonder why the state continues to pay $78 million a year to support students in private colleges and universities–aid that attaches regardless of a students’ financial need.

While some of the recent UNC tuition increases have been earmarked for student aid (a Lee initiative, the senator says), the net result of a decade’s worth of hikes has been to jack up the burden on students of moderate or lesser means to levels that are anything but practicable.

UNC students who borrow, Payne and others point out, drawing from university statistics, end up owing about 40 percent more money than their counterparts in other states. President Broad maintains, and the students concede, that UNC tuitions are relatively low compared to other state universities. But total costs are shooting up, and the rapid increases in tuition over the last decade–they’ve more than doubled at N.C. State, UNC-CH and N.C. Central University in Durham, among others–are exacerbating the problem. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s financial aid programs are skimpy relative to those in other states, so students end up shouldering a relatively heavy burden.

Bottom line figures: A UNC education today, including room, board, fees, computer costs, books, insurance and so on, costs more than $11,000 on most campuses and pending increases will push the numbers past $12,000 next year. One-third of UNC system students borrow at least some of that money.

At UNC-Wilmington, according to its Chancellor, Jim Leutze, the average student who borrows will graduate owing about $12,000. At N.C. State, according to Julie Rice Mallette, director of student financial aid, that figure last year was $15,999. Moreover, as costs increase, more students take jobs. Because they work, they take longer to graduate, pushing up their own borrowing and the costs of their education to taxpayers.

Payne’s five-year undergraduate program is virtually standard for State’s engineering programs anyway, but he’s also worked a variety of on-campus jobs and still needed to borrow. His parents are solidly middle-class: Mom’s a paralegal, his stepfather is a lawyer. So are Marsha Peterson’s folks. Her dad’s a contractor and her grandmother left a small trust fund for her education. Nonetheless, the senior zoology-science education major can be found 20 hours a week working at Light Years, a store in Cary Towne Center. She’ll take four and a half years to finish, and she’s about to borrow her first $10,000, money that will take awhile to pay back on her expected salary as a high-school teacher.

Both of them, however, say the real issue isn’t middle-class families but poor ones. Too many well-qualified students head for community college or straight to the work force instead of coming to UNC because they’re convinced they can’t afford it. “We’re here to represent them,” Payne says. “You’ll never hear from those students, because they never apply.”

In their mind, then, “free as practicable” means that students–adult students, remember–should be allowed to start their working lives with as little debt as possible, and no student should be discouraged from applying to UNC because their family is poor.

Lee, though, shrugs at the prospect of raising more state funds for UNC, saying voters won’t hear the word “taxes” from Democrats in this election year, despite a looming state deficit that he estimates will reach $1.4 billion. They won’t hear it from the GOP, either. Rep. Art Pope, a Raleigh Republican, says the UNC system costs the taxpayers too much now, and he’s “offended” by Basnight’s sliding-scale proposal. “Are we going to start saying that because you’re successful in life, you’re going to pay more for basic public services?” he asked.

Between these poles–a legislature that won’t raise taxes and students balking at higher debt loads–UNC President Broad is treading a difficult centerline. Her priority is clear: Increase student enrollments. “UNC is not serving as many students as other great universities are,” she says, seconding the protesters. “Our numbers are nothing to be proud of.”

But without greater funding from the General Assembly, every new student is a money-loser on her books that tuition hikes can help offset. And Broad is convinced that, even if the state won’t pay more, a UNC education is well worth $12,000 or $16,000 of debt, if that’s what it comes to.

The good news is that even if a student has no family backing at all, he can attend a UNC school without any immediate out-of-pocket expense and without needing to work if he chooses not to. Federal aid is available (Pell grants will be $4,000 next fall), as well as some state aid. In addition, almost $6,000 a year can be borrowed at no- or low-interest rates, and payments don’t start until six months after graduation.

“College is possible for you” is her message to every student, Broad says, and the shame is that too many students in North Carolina either haven’t heard it or don’t believe it. Yes, you may end up in debt. But look at students like Andrew Payne and see what you get in return. EndBlock