A state program that’s set to lower Western Carolina University’s tuition to $500 per semester could have unintended consequences when it comes to the university’s summer programming. 

coverEver since a controversial bill proposing to slash tuition rates at selected University of North Carolina schools popped up in May, leaders at Western Carolina University have been working to parse its language, ferret out its potential impacts and prod legislators toward a version they could support.

SEE ALSO: Tuition ‘buy down’ promises future entanglements

fr wcu2As the 2016-17 North Carolina budget came together, a significant part of it — touted by both Democrats and Republicans — was the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan, intended to make education more affordable for college students who often graduate saddled with great debt, or worse, don’t graduate but retain similar levels of financial obligation to lenders facing increased scrutiny for what some call “predatory” practices.

WCUHow would you like to pay a mere $500 a semester to attend Western Carolina University?

Western Carolina University’s Board of Trustees approved an 8 percent increase in tuition next academic year — much to the vexation of its student body.

“We came in here, and it was not an easy decision,” said Trustee Grace Battle. “I think everybody in here struggled.”

Western Carolina University students likely will shell out an additional $399 in tuition and fees to attend school next year, an increase in dollars that some on campus said will be hard for them to come by.

It’s likely to be most difficult for students such as Kayla Damons. A Tennessee resident who transferred to WCU last year, Damons faces the daunting task of paying higher out-of-state tuition requirements.

Damons, a biology major, said she expects she’ll be some $30,000 in debt after gaining an undergraduate degree. A tuition and fee hike, she said, certainly won’t help ease that burden.

“It’s really kind of scary,” Damons said, taking a short break to chat from her job at the Mad Batter restaurant in Cullowhee, where she works to pay her way through school. “But then there’s nothing you can do about the cost if you want an education.”

It’s not just students who are worried. Mad Batter owner Jeannette Evans said she believes there’s a constant trickledown occurring in the local economy, and that a tuition and fee hike at WCU also won’t help local businesses such as her restaurant.

“It seems you have to do more and offer more just to stay at the status quo,” such as offering additional menu items and keeping earlier and later hours, the 14-year restaurant owner said.

This year’s expected increase follows campus-wide discussion on the issue among students, perhaps the first time that sort of direct budget participation by the student body has taken place here. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors must approve WCU’s proposed tuition and student fee hike, however, before it becomes policy.

With the proposed changes approved by the trustees, WCU’s total cost of attendance in 2012-13, including on-campus housing and the most-popular meal plan, would be $11,775 per year for a typical N.C. undergraduate, according to WCU spokesman Bill Studenc.


The decision wasn’t unanimous

T.J. Eaves, student body president, helped broker something of a compromise on the proposed increase. Eaves and Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs, co-chaired a campus committee on the proposed tuition and student fees.

The increase easily could have been steeper than the 3 percent eventually arrived at. And some trustee members said, for the long-term well-being of the university, that it should have been.

Severe financial constraints — WCU has seen the state cut more than $32 million since the 2008-09 fiscal year  — have left the school scrambling to pay bills. WCU isn’t alone. The UNC system, because of budget cuts across North Carolina, authorized universities such as WCU to begin to “catch-up” with rates charged at similar-type institutions.

A study by the UNC General Administration showed that WCU is charging $1,360 less per year for tuition than the “least expensive quartile of peer institutions.”

Under a graduated plan approved by WCU’s trustees by a 9-2 vote last week, 15 percent of the $1,360 “catch-up” increase would be implemented in year one, 20 percent in year two, 25 percent in years three and four, and 15 percent in year five.

Two of the trustees urged the university to play catch-up over four years instead of the five agreed upon. Trustee Pat Kimberling said that would add an additional $48 to each student’s bill annually, for a $447 increase.

“The job of the Board of Trustees is to look after the long term well-being of the university,” Kimberling said. “The students who voted on this proposal will be gone … sometimes, in a custodial position, you have to make hard decisions.”

Trustee Carolyn Coward, who joined Kimberling in voting against the adopted recommendation, added that she believed “that we need to take advantage of this opportunity as quickly as we can, because we may never have this opportunity again.”


Listening to the students

But Trustee Wardell Townsend said the board needed to show students they were willing to listen.

“The students are not just our wards, they are consumers. And they are paying for a product,” Townsend said, adding that by accepting the students’ compromise proposal, the trustees “tell the student body that they are truly invested and that we truly hear them. They spoke; we made the adjustment.”

And that, Townsend said, would result in a “true dialogue” among administrators, the Board of Trustees and the university’s students.

What went unsaid is that by adopting the student-forged compromise, the board of trustees would endorse a new method of leadership being instituted at WCU under new Chancellor David Belcher. He took over this summer with promises to build transparency and cooperation into the system by including all stakeholders in university issues.

A tuition hike spells additional hardships for many students at Western Carolina University, at least those who already find it difficult to scratch up the dollars needed to obtain a college degree.

“I’m sure it’s going to be hard on many of them,” said Seth McCormick, who teaches art history.

And on a recent weekend in Cullowhee, a group of students who also double as Subway Restaurant employees agreed. Most of their fellow students were gone from campus. Exams finished, they’d headed home for the holiday break. But not Carrie Collins of Pilot Mountain, or Bethanne Bentley of Raleigh — they were hard at work, earning money to help pay their way through school.

“It will be difficult to come up with,” Collins said of the additional 4.45 percent she will pay for the 2011-12 academic year.

That translates to an additional $471.20 a year for typical N.C. undergraduates who are living on campus and receiving the most-popular meal plan. The total cost for these students each year will be $11,055. Tuition alone for these students would be $3,048 per year, up $232.20.

Collins, a hospitality and tourism major, who described herself as a “super-duper” junior (which she defined as meaning she’s stayed a junior for more time than anticipated), said she’d probably be forced to seek even more help via student loans.

Fortunately, Collins said, books are included in the tuition fees at WCU.

North Carolina is faced with a $3.7 billion shortfall. Cuts are trickling down to universities and other state institutions. The WCU Board of Trustees approved the tuition hike Dec. 8.

Trustees Vice Chairman Charles Worley said in a prepared news release the “only hope we have of maintaining the academic core, or at least minimizing the hurt, is with this tuition increase.”

Bentley said she feels fortunate she will only be going to school part-time next semester. She lives off campus, and believes her goal of becoming a social worker is still reachable.

The increase came as a jolt to one of WCU’s newest students. Freshman Corvin Parker, a Raleigh resident who was buying lunch at Subway, said the tuition hike served as something of a spur.

“It makes me think I want to buckle down,” Parker said.

There are other increases coming, as well. WCU is seeking permission from the University of North Carolina system to also:

• Increase the athletics fee by $71, from $617 to $688.

• Add $24 to the education and technology fee, from $363 a year to $387.

To help offset the impact of budget cuts recently authorized by the N.C. General Assembly, Western Carolina University will raise in-state undergraduate tuition and fees by 17.5 percent effective for the fall semester.

University of North Carolina system President Erskine Bowles approved the plan Wednesday, July 14. A special provision of the state budget allows UNC campuses to increase tuition by as much as $750 for the 2010-11 academic year, a measure intended to help address a $70 million cut to the UNC system’s budget.

Western Carolina’s plan would raise tuition by $572.80 for 2010-11, in addition to a $137 increase in campus-initiated tuition previously approved by the UNC Board of Governors.

The tuition increase will maintain a quality student academic experience at WCU and will generate about $3.8 million, said Chuck Wooten, vice chancellor for administration and finance.

Eighty percent of the increase – or $3.1 million – will be used to prevent the loss of 32.2 faculty positions at WCU.

Another 20 percent will go to need-based financial aid, Wooten said.

But WCU is not alone in tuition increases. All campuses in the UNC system are raising tuition.

UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State University both had supplemental tuition increases of $750 in addition to campus initiated tuition increases.

Bowles said additional tuition charges are the only way the system can maintain quality.

“I have long prided myself in being a ‘low-tuition guy.’ A supplemental tuition increase of up to $750 certainly flies in the face of that,” Bowles said. “Nonetheless, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that low tuition without high quality is no bargain for anyone – not our students, their future employers or the state taxpayers. To compete successfully for the jobs of tomorrow, North Carolina must have a highly trained, highly skilled workforce.”

A comparison to public peer institutions nationally, conducted using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, ranked WCU as having the lowest tuition and fees for resident undergraduate and graduate students in 2009-10.

“This is a difficult decision,” WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo said. “However, even with this increase, our overall tuition rates will be low compared to our public peer institutions and other UNC campuses similar to us in size and mission.”

In response to budget cuts and reversions last year, Western Carolina eliminated or froze 94 positions – primarily in administrative areas, Bardo said.

“It is critical that we preserve our core programs, retain our outstanding faculty members, minimize the impact of cuts on class size and class availability, and provide critical student support,” Bardo said.

Typically, students would begin receiving bills for the fall semester later this week. Because of the recent changes, billing for fall 2010 semester will be delayed to allow time for adjustments in financial aid packages, said Nancy S. Brendell, WCU bursar.

Electronic notifications for billing will be sent on Friday, July 23. Students should make full payment by Aug. 13 to guarantee their class schedules.

For more information, visit tuitionfees.wcu.edu.

Western Carolina University’s board of trustees voted to increase the school’s tuition by 6.5 percent next year.

The vote to adopt a voluntary tuition hike will only take effect if the North Carolina General Assembly backs off on its proposed 8 percent tuition hike across the UNC system.

WCU doesn’t stand to gain from statewide hike, which would merely plug holes in the state budget. However, the voluntary hike preferred by the WCU trustees would remain at the local level and augment the university’s own budget.

WCU Chancellor John Bardo explained the need for a voluntary tuition increase to the school’s trustees before the vote.

“If you look at the institutions in the UNC system most like Western, our market basket of programs –– we have the most expensive programs, but our tuition lags substantially behind schools like ASU and Wilmington,” Bardo said.

The General Assembly already voted to increase tuition across the UNC system by 8 percent or $200 to cover a $35 million hole in the state’s general fund.

Vice Chancellor for administration and finance Chuck Wooten said UNC President Erskine Bowles will ask the Assembly to allow each of the universities in the system to adopt voluntary tuition and fee increases.

“We remain hopeful that the [General Assembly] will be able to find that $35 million in some other way,” Wooten said.

Bardo said WCU would use half of the money it raises from its 6.5 percent increase for need-based scholarships and the other half for its quality improvement plan. The raise would cost an in-state undergraduate student an extra $31 on 2010-11 tuition fees.

“We are in a position in which we’re trying to increase quality, and we need the resources to do it,” Bardo said.

WCU Student Government Assembly President Josh Cotton asked the trustees for a 5.2 percent increase instead, but the board voted unanimously to adopt the amount put forward by the school’s leadership.

“There’s no way you’ll get 0 percent,” Cotton said. “That’s why I went down to meet with presidents from other institutions to work out a good compromise. Even though it’s a small amount, I still promised the students I’d try to keep it as low as possible.”

Steve Warren, chairman of the board of trustees, said WCU needed to balance its mandate to provide an affordable education with its drive to improve the quality of its product.

“We want our students to have the best. They deserve the best,” said Warren. “Yet we also must be mindful of our state constitution, which requires us to provide public higher education as free from costs as possible. The task is to find that delicate balance.”

Western Carolina University’s board of trustees unanimously approved proposed tuition and fees for the 2008-09 academic year, including increases to support operational costs for a new indoor recreation center currently under construction and to begin meeting student requests for enhanced campus health services.

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