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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.

An early version of the language, however, presented several potential issues, and although that language was eventually removed, there still could be unforeseen consequences and broken promises subject to the political whims of whoever happens to control the legislature in coming years. 

The way it all works is that tuition will be capped at $500 per semester for in-state residents at three institutions — Elizabeth City State University, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Western Carolina University. 

According to Mike Byers, vice chancellor for administration and finance, WCU’s tuition before the adoption of the plan was $1,946.50 per semester, meaning WCU stood to lose $1,446.50 per in-state student, per semester. 

To backfill that gap, the budget measure said that “the Director of the Budget may, on recommendation of the Board of Governors of The University of North Carolina, authorize an increase in the base budget for The University of North Carolina of up to seventy million dollars ($70,000,000) to cover the cost of lost tuition revenue for that fiscal year.”

As followers of the nationwide concealed-carry debate can attest, there are major implications in the minor nuances of the word “may,” which means “might,” as opposed to “shall,” which means “must,” leaving open the option for the budget director to make no authorization for the funds. 

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Another ambiguity in the proposed version concerned student fees, stating they must be reduced by 5 percent beginning in 2018 as compared to 2016’s fees, after which a maximum 3 percent raise could occur each year. 

But there wasn’t a plan in place to reimburse schools for the decrease in revenue associated with the caps, since the reimbursement as outlined said it was to be used for “the cost of lost tuition revenue” and said nothing about lost fee revenue. 

Those issues were corrected in the final version of the legislation, but as is sometimes the case, other issues took their place. 

“May” became “shall,” but $70 million became $40 million as the amount of schools subject to the tuition cap was reduced from five to three. Three historically black colleges were removed from the bill after protest from the NAACP and other opponents who claimed the bill would only set those institutions up for failure. 

So what happens if too many students attempt to take advantage of the reduced tuition, thereby exhausting funding?

“We (universities) all manage our enrollment,” said Myers. “In other words, we don’t admit every student who applies. Many factors ‘limit’ our growth over time: physical capacity in classrooms, labs, [and] residence halls and personnel factors such as faculty positions to teach the needed course sections. When such limiting factors are reached, we become more selective about which applicants to admit. If the availability of funds from the $40 million pool becomes a limiting factor, we would simply stop growing our enrollment.”

Myers went on to speculate that since the nature of the NC Promise Tuition Plan is to make higher education more affordable and more accessible, “I would imagine that the amount appropriated for it would be revisited in the future just as all other funding sources are.”

One would imagine. But stranger things have happened in the North Carolina General Assembly. Like with the fees portion of the agreement.

Final language removed the immediate 5 percent reduction in fees, instead only mandating that student fees may not be increased more than 3 percent each year. 

Fees for the 2016-17 school year are $2,678, including $1,111 for health insurance (if a student isn’t already covered), according to Myers. 

As costs grow, year by year, 3 percent may not be enough to keep up with inflation — over the past decade, fees have risen an average of 4.4 percent each year, but no state revenue is mentioned as being dedicated to filling that gap if and when it arises. And although that, too, should probably be “revisited” in coming years, what happens in the future is just as unpredictable — and just as tied to — as the results of the November General Election.

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