Archived Opinion

New tuition plan holds great promise for NC

op frTuition just got significantly cheaper at Western Carolina University, and as long as the legislature keeps its promises to fill in the gap, then this is a huge win for North Carolina families, our university and the region.

The North Carolina Promise Tuition Plan caps tuition at WCU, Elizabeth City State and Pembroke at $500 per semester. It doesn’t cap fees, meals and housing, but total cost for a year (two semesters) for those living on-campus at WCU will drop from $17,600 to $14,600.

Also of note, the bill promises that all freshmen starting at any of the UNC system universities are promised no tuition hikes during their first four years and a limit on fee hikes. 

These are all positives for the 160,000 students attending our university system. First, soaring college costs have become an onerous burden on too many families and students. Education has always been the best path to success in this country, but these days too many are graduating with crippling debt.

According to information from WCU, during the 2014-15 school year its students and families “borrowed $63 million to afford college. In the same year, our students graduated with an average loan debt of $20,575.”

College affordability is one of the big issues of our times. According the Raleigh News and Observer, “North Carolina has seen one of the highest (tuition and fees) increases over the past five years. Even when accounting for inflation, in-state students at UNC-system schools saw a 20 percent spike in tuition and fees. Ten states experienced a larger increase.”

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During the same five years, median family income in North Carolina rose by just 6 percent. That’s the sobering reality middle-class families trying to send their kids to college are coping with.

In a time when the old manufacturing jobs available to those without college educations have vanished, more and more people will need to attend our universities. Year after year of tuition and fee hikes have become the norm. Perhaps this new attitude from our state legislators represents a tipping point, a realization that it is time to put the brakes on rising costs.

The tuition freeze plan for students who are entering college has both critics and supporters. Some worry that working college students who take more than four years to graduate will face sticker shock when they enter their fifth year and see tuition hikes. Others argue that tuition hikes for succeeding freshman classes will wreak havoc on families with multiple children as they try to plan for college costs.

For WCU in particular, though, there is a very good possibility the $500 per semester tuition cost will make it an even stronger school academically. Its affordability compared to other state schools should mean more applicants. Those of us who live here already know that a student who visits Cullowhee is very likely to be seduced by the beauty of the campus and the surrounding mountains. With the right marketing, this could do great things for WCU’s academic reputation as it gets more applicants and becomes more selective.

The devil, of course, is in the details. This plan — originally proposed by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, also a WCU grad — will only work if the legislature and the UNC system officials work hard to ensure that universities get the money they will lose from tuition reductions and freezes and from the cap on fee hikes.

As the budget is written, $40 million is allocated for WCU, Pembroke and ECSU to offset losses from tuition. Obviously keeping that money coming, and increasing it if student enrollment increases, is critical for the functioning of the universities. Unfortunately, there is no mention in the budget of how revenue lost from the cap on fees will be replaced. 

And let’s not gloss over recent history. The GOP-led General Assembly has not been generous to the UNC system schools over the past few years. In fact, the miserly support from the legislature is the very reason fees and tuition costs have spiked so dramatically.

And the forced resignation of popular UNC system President Tom Ross, a Democrat, in January was an overtly political move that is still reverberating around the state just as new president Margaret Spellings is trying to get her feet on the ground. Many rightly worry that the General Assembly is meddling too much in the affairs of the university system.

I’d like to think that this is indeed a new day for the university system North Carolina citizens hold so dear. It’s not likely anyone can forget the politics of the day, but perhaps we can at least move beyond them and focus on helping families get their kids through college debt-free. If this plan helps accomplish that, the state of North Carolina and its citizens will reap huge benefits.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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