Original Donors to the University and the Myth of Free Tuition

One of the enduring myths of UNC history is that there is a provision in the founding documents that says that descendants of the families who donated land to the university may attend school free of charge.  While this would have been a very generous (and complicated) offer, it is not true.

The confusion may come from the fact that there are sections, both in the act establishing the university and the early trustees minutes, where free tuition is mentioned.

Detail from the 1789 law of North Carolina describing benefits to early UNC donors.

Chapter 20 of the 1789 Laws of North-Carolina was entitled “An Act to Establish a University in this State.” The act named the original trustees, defined their powers and responsibilities, and included, toward the end, a “Benefit granted to subscribers.” This said, in part, “That every person who within the term of five years shall subscribe ten pounds towards this university . . . shall be entitled to have one student educated at the university free from any expence of tuition.”

So the free tuition for early donors did exist, but it applied only to a single student that they would select.

Detail from the 1792 Board of Trustees minutes describing benefits to people who donated land.
Detail from the 1792 Board of Trustees minutes describing benefits to people who donated land.

There is a similar enticement to donors in the earliest minutes of the Board of Trustees in 1792. At the meeting on 5 December 1792, the trustees voted unanimously to place the university in Chapel Hill (or “Newhope Chappel Hill” as it first appears in the minutes). The minutes list the names of nine people* who donated land in Orange County for the university and said that they “shall have the respective privilege of having one Student educated at the said University free from any expence of tuition.”

As in the act establishing UNC, the provision is clear that the donors may select only one student to attend school free of tuition. While this benefit does not pass down the generations, what has extended through to the present is the enduring gratitude of all of the students who have had the privilege of living and studying in Chapel Hill.

* Who were the original donors of land? Many of the last names are familiar from streets and buildings in and around Chapel Hill:

  • John Hogan, 200 acres
  • Benjamin Yeargin, 51 acres
  • Matthew McCauley, 150 acres
  • Christopher Barbee, 221 acres
  • Edmund Jones, 200 acres
  • Mark Morgan, 107 acres
  • Jonathan Daniel, 107 acres
  • Hardy Morgan, 125 acres
  • William McCauley, 100 acres

Most of these donations were contingent upon Chapel Hill being chosen as the site of the university. While the donors were certainly generous, they were not without self-interest: the establishment of a university would greatly increase the value of their remaining lands, which, with the hilly landscape and rocky soil, were poorly suited for large-scale farming.