Tuition has been a complicated and controversial topic at the university since its founding. The initial cost to attend the university when it opened in 1795 was $15 per year (roughly equivalent to $300 in 2015). In North Carolina's Constitution of 1868, the article on education said that "the General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of the university, as far as practicable, be extended to the youth of the State free of expense for tuition." While the wording changed slightly through subsequent revisions, the mandate for free education has remained, and the clause "as far as practicable" has remained a source of debate.

Even as the university grew through the twentieth century, tuition increases remained fairly modest. Tuition did not top $100 until the 1920s and remained below $1,000 for in-state residents until the 1990s. The university began charging a higher rate for out-of-state residents in the 1920s, briefly exploring a model that would charge different amounts for students from different parts of the country, adjusted for how much universities in those areas charged for out-of-state tuition.

Costs for attending UNC—Chapel Hill rose more rapidly in the 2000s due to a number of factors, most notably a decline in direct support from the state following a series of budget cuts. The university sought to offset rising tuition through increased financial aid opportunities. In 2003 the university announced the creation of the Carolina Covenant, a new program that would ensure that qualifying students who could not afford tuition were able to graduate debt-free.