Cheap tuition proposal could cost WCU millions
How would you like to pay a mere $500 a semester to attend Western Carolina University?
That is what Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, and other legislators are pushing to do during this year’s short session in Raleigh with the proposed Access to Affordable College Education Act.
While only $500 a semester sounds like a dream come true for college students and their families, higher education leaders say the devil’s in the details. The cheap tuition provision is only one of many mandates included in the bill and it wouldn’t even apply to all colleges and universities within the state system — only five of them.
Western Carolina University found itself included in the bill along with state universities that have traditionally served minority populations — African Americans at Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, and Winston-Salem State University, and Native Americans and African Americans at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
With more than 20 co-sponsors, the bill has garnered a good amount of support in the Senate, but critics are hoping changes can be made to the proposed law before it goes up for a final vote.
Educators say the idea of an affordable and accessible college education sounds great in theory, but they are concerned the bill as written could result in unintended consequences for their respective institutions.
The WCU Faculty Senate held a campus forum Monday to discuss the bill and decide whether the faculty should take an official position on the legislation. While the bill is complicated in nature, Faculty Senate Chair David McCord said he was concerned about how it was being oversimplified in the media.
“It’s a seven-part bill and it’s very complicated,” McCord said. “The intent behind it has not been transparent, but the impact could be indescribably huge … it could severely cripple us.”
The stated purpose of the bill is to address the high cost of education and decrease the debt burden on college students by offering a fixed tuition rate for incoming freshmen, decreasing student fees, providing extremely low tuition at the five chosen universities and offering a limited number of scholarships for students attending North Carolina A&T in Greensboro and North Carolina Central University in Durham.
WCU faculty members said they supported the goal of making college more affordable, but they aren’t convinced the state has the funding to offset their costs for the foreseeable future. If passed, McCord said, the state would have to come up with about $65 million to implement the new plan — and that’s only for the first year. About $26 million of that money would be needed to offset WCU’s costs.
“If we knew it would be funded in the long term we wouldn’t have a problem, but we don’t know who will be elected years from now,” said Brian Gastle, professor of English.
As WCU has experienced continued cuts in state funding, faculty members are worried WCU and the other universities could be vulnerable to more financial uncertainties if the state has a tighter hold on the purse strings. And where will that money come from — the general fund or cuts from other parts of the budget?
“If the state has $26 million just lying around, then why are we struggling so bad to get funding?” asked Dr. Laura Wright, head of the English department.
Another question that kept coming up was “Why WCU?” McCord said he could think of several factors Apodaca and other champions of the bill might point to, including WCU’s remote location and a projected decline in potential students in the next five years.
Since Apodaca is a WCU alum, McCord said he could have pushed to include his alma mater in the proposed bill.
“Apodaca is a champion of our school — maybe he wanted WCU on the list because he saw this as a windfall for the university,” McCord said.
Either way, WCU is the obvious odd man out in the group of five universities selected to offer the deeply discounted tuition. Critics have called the measure a “bigoted bill” that aims to dismantle historically black colleges and universities by creating an unsustainable funding model.
On the other hand, McCord said the intent could be to help those institutions improve their enrollment and academic performance by encouraging more students to attend those struggling schools.
“Maybe it’s a pathway to save that school and keep it a black institution instead of merging it with a white school,” he suggested.
While McCord tried to think optimistically about the intent of the bill, others were more skeptical of legislators’ motives behind selecting the schools.
“If they believe a college education should be free, then it should be all schools in the system — not just these five schools,” Gastle said.
Accepting that the reasons may be irrelevant at this point, the group of about 30 faculty members tried to focus on how they could persuade the General Assembly to alter the bill language to give them more confidence in the outcome. McCord reviewed a public statement and legislation analysis released by the UNC system Faculty Assembly.
Stephen Leonard, chairman of the UNC system Faculty Assembly, sent a letter to UNC President Margaret Spellings expressing concerns about the proposed legislation. He said the legislation interferes with the UNC Board of Governors’ authority to govern state universities and also compromises the universities’ ability to sustain high-quality educational opportunities. Leonard said provisions in the bill could result in a change in admissions eligibility, the alteration of a university’s historical identity and even campus closures.
“The UNC Faculty Assembly urges members of the North Carolina General Assembly, Governor McCrory and the UNC Board of Governors, to carefully consider the implications of this legislation for further damaging the quality and reputation of public higher education in this state,” Leonard wrote.
As an alternative to the lower tuition mandate, McCord said, some had suggested using that $65 million to create a massive merit scholarship fund to assist low-income students attending any state university. It would allow universities to remain in control of their tuition prices and fees while also moving toward the goal of offering more affordable education for all. WCU faculty members seemed agreeable to that alternative. McCord said he would spend the next few days gathering feedback from faculty before trying to come up with a final statement from the Faculty Senate.
Apodaca was not available for comment before press time and his office did not respond to emailed questions regarding the bill.
What you need to know
Provisions outlined in the proposed Access to Affordable College Education Act
• Students entering the state college system would be assured a fixed tuition rate for four years.
• Student fees would be reduced by 10 to 25 percent below 2016 rates.
• Tuition would be lowered to $500 a semester for in-state students and $2,500 a semester for out-of-state students at four minority campuses and Western Carolina University.
• Directs the UNC Board of Governors to consider raising the current enrollment cap of 18 percent for out-of-state students.
• Directs UNC to evaluate the current institutional names.
• Creates a number of scholarships for students at NCATSU and NCCU.
Read the entire Senate Bill 873 legislation at http://www.ncleg.net/