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WCU voices support for tuition reduction plan

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

The latest version, embedded in a budget bill the legislature passed July 1 — is expected to gain the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory this week and seems to have addressed the most serious concerns the university had with the original proposal. 

“My fellow trustees and I understand that total cost of attendance at WCU and other colleges and universities remains out of reach for many students of modest means,” said Ed Broadwell, chairman of the WCU Board of Trustees. “Although (the plan) is not the final answer to college affordability, we believe it to be a good start.”

Under the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan, undergraduate tuition fees would drop to $500 per semester for in-state students — a significant decrease from the $1,947 charged now.

“It’s roughly equivalent to about a $3,000 scholarship on an annual basis,” said Melissa Wargo, chief of staff for WCU. 

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Fees and costs for dorms and meal plans would stay the same, so the total cost to an in-state student living on campus with an average meal plan would sit around $14,000 under the new plan, down from $17,000.

WCU is one of three schools statewide included under N.C. Promise, joining the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University.

“The original intent of the bill’s sponsors was to have a geographical range of institutions participating in the N.C. Promise Program,” Wargo said, “so that every citizen of the state from Murphy to Manteo would have the ability to access a high-quality, high-value institution within the state.” 

The chosen schools — though fewer than the list of institutions originally included in the bill — are spaced according to that desire. WCU covers the western portion of the state, Pembroke is in the middle and Elizabeth City is on the coast. Western is a natural fit for the program, Wargo said, as it’s historically prided itself on extending high-value education to students from rural areas and first-generation college students.

That’s a sentiment that’s been echoed in statements from everyone from the Board of Trustees to Chancellor David Belcher, but it would be wrong to say that everyone’s offering unqualified support for the program. While the university has come out strongly in favor of the program in its presently planned form, the rumbling of misgiving that has existed since the program began being discussed has not disappeared. 

The main concerns center on funding and reputation. With WCU taking in less money from each student, how will the shortfall affect the university? And if WCU is singled out as the “cheap” school, will that diminish its academic reputation?

When the bill first came out, the voices decrying the funding aspect were much louder than they are now. The legislation didn’t specify where the money would come from to make up the shortfall, and WCU couldn’t exactly say goodbye to millions in revenue without sacrificing quality. 

But the most recent version states plainly that the state budget director must allocate $40 million — the amount that the three universities combined are projected to lose in revenue — each fiscal year, with that money going to the three institutions to cover their costs. 

“We’re glad to see that in the language of the bill and in the language of the budget,” Wargo said. “Having it in both is as close to a guarantee as we could get for funding.”

That said, it’s true that a future legislature could make whatever changes it wanted to the law or the funding. Nothing is guaranteed, and the tuition reduction could increase Western’s vulnerability to funding cuts. But, said David McCord, a WCU psychology professor whose term as chair of the Faculty Senate recently ended, overall the situation looks good. 

“None of our budget is guaranteed into the future,” he said. “I think the potential positives to the people of the state outweigh the risks.” 

Student debt in North Carolina has shot way up, increasing 52 percent since 2007-08 to $23,4440 among those who graduate with debt from a four-year public institution, and the median income for a North Carolinian with a bachelor’s degree is about $40,000, according to language in the original bill. 

“Anything that we can do to help families better plan and afford college I think is great for every citizen of the state,” Wargo said. 

There’s also some lingering concern that the reduced tuition could reduce WCU’s academic reputation as well. Belcher acknowledged the criticism in a seven-paragraph statement he issued on the topic. 

“I understand that some alumni and friends are concerned about the possible unintended reputational impact of the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan out of a fear that lower out-of-pocket expenses for undergraduate students and their families could somehow ‘cheapen’ the perception of the education we offer,” Belcher said. “The fact of the matter is that the cost of providing an education at WCU will not decrease at all.”

Education at public universities has always been subsidized, Wargo said, because the goal of having them is to offer an education that’s accessible to families of modest means. This bill will simply increase the level of subsidy at particular schools, including Western. And the result, she said, would likely be a more academically able student body, not the other way around. WCU is expecting an increase in applications as a result of the reduced tuition price. 

“If you have more applications, then in order to keep a reasonable size class we would have to take fewer of those students, so we would be able to select from the best and brightest of the students who do apply,” Wargo said. “We would anticipate in a relatively short amount of time the academic profile of our incoming students would actually increase.”

McCord said he’ll look forward to seeing how the university handles that reality. Will WCU become more academically selective? Or will the emphasis move to expanding capacity so that more students can attend? 

“That’s a fun problem to have I think. I think many of us are still going to be committed to the access mission of giving the people of Western North Carolina and the state a chance to get a college degree and take some chances on people,” McCord said. “At the same time you can be capturing increasingly capable students because you have a bigger applicant pool.”

WCU plans to take a hard look at its processes and facilities before the N.C. Promise Plan goes into effect in 2018, Wargo said, so it will be ready to address those questions. The program will affect how the school goes about marketing and recruiting, and it will elevate the need to carefully evaluate university facilities to see what kind of capacity is available to take on additional students. 

“One of the critical factors of how many students you can take is how many beds you can provide,” she said. 

N.C. Promise is not yet a completely done deal — the bill still needs McCrory’s signature to become law, something that’s likely to happen this week. 

“Absolutely it will have a significant impact on Western,” Wargo said. “This will be a very innovative approach to addressing issues of access and affordability and student indebtedness. Western has always been on the forefront of providing a high-quality, high-value education, so we feel like we’re leaders in that area to begin with.”

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