A bill that would dramatically lower tuition at five UNC campuses passed two legislative committees Wednesday, as proponents tried to calm concerns that the measure could harm historically black universities.
One controversial provision – the possible renaming of the schools – was removed from Senate Bill 873 before it passed education and appropriations committees.
It was clear from the debate that the bill has stoked fears among some supporters of the state’s publicly funded historically black universities. They suggest the changes could starve campuses financially, alter their makeup and diminish their traditions. Alumni showed up to speak to lawmakers Wednesday as the bill was heard in committee. The UNC system’s Faculty Assembly took a stand against the bill last week.
The legislation calls for fixed tuition for any UNC system student’s four years of enrollment and reduced fees at all UNC campuses.
But it also launches a radical experiment to establish tuition at $500 per semester for North Carolina residents at five schools – including the historically black Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State universities, the historically American Indian UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University, which is majority white. Proponents of the legislation, which would begin in fall 2018, say it would boost enrollment at smaller campuses and provide a low-cost alternative to North Carolinians across the state.
The two other historically black state universities – N.C. A&T State University and N.C. Central – stand to gain a state-supported merit scholarship program to draw the state’s brightest students.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, called Wednesday a “historic day” as the legislation was first debated. He promised that the UNC system’s budget would increase by $70 million to cover the cost of the lost tuition revenue at the five campuses.
He said he hoped the budget pledge would correct misconceptions about the bill.
“We have no desire to close any of our universities in our system,” Apodaca said. “We’re proud of the University of North Carolina system. I think it’s second to none in the United States, and our goal is to keep it that way. In order to do that, we’ve got to build all our institutions up to or as near capacity as we can possibly get them.”
Several lawmakers expressed worry that there is no guarantee the state would compensate for the lost tuition revenue in future years, because this General Assembly cannot bind a future legislature.
That fear was echoed by several speakers.
“We fully support an investment in our HBCUs, but we do want to make sure that commitment is something that can be sustained in the future,” said Abdul Rasheed, former chairman of the ECSU trustees. “We remain concerned about that.”
Archdale Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman said the best guarantee for continued funding is the bill itself, which is likely to be very popular with the people.
“The public is going to be very hard to convince that we ought to change this and weaken it and do away with it,” he said. “It’s the right direction for the families that are struggling to educate their kids, and it will keep them from graduating with a huge debt.”
Sen. Jane Smith, a Lumberton Democrat, suggested that the legislation provide incentive scholarships to students instead of cheap tuition. “We don’t want it to look like we’re getting a bargain basement diploma,” she said.
Apodaca responded that incentive scholarships were a good idea, but were unworkable because such awards could interfere with a student’s eligibility for government grants and loans.
Alyssa Canty, HBCU outreach coordinator for Common Cause, said students “now fear that their degrees will not be valuable when they graduate.”
Across the state, alumni have cautioned that a $500 per semester price tag could cheapen a degree. But Apodaca applies free market thinking to the issue. The five campuses have additional capacity, ranging from 5 percent to over 100 percent, so it makes sense to reduce price to increase demand.
“It’s a marketing ploy,” Apodaca said. “Let’s be very honest. This is to help get more students, high-quality students, into these universities so they can sustain themselves and do it on a geographical basis across the state of North Carolina.”
Even with $500-a-semester tuition, students would still have to pay fees and other costs such as room, board and books, which typically constitute about three-quarters of college costs in North Carolina.
Rising fees have caused problems at some campuses, Apodaca said, and inflate costs for students. But to make the bill more palatable to the universities, an amendment added Wednesday would reduce fees by 5 percent instead of the bill’s previously required 10 percent to 25 percent.
Some said the legislature should tread carefully before making such sweeping changes.
Sen. Paul Lowe Jr., a Winston-Salem Democrat, said he had been inundated with calls from supporters of Winston-Salem State who oppose the plan. He suggested a pilot program to try out the low tuition model – an idea that didn’t gain traction Wednesday.
“Right now I have a lot of apprehensions about this bill,” Lowe said. “It has a lot of moving parts that make me uneasy at this point.”
Others cheered the plan, saying it’s time for North Carolina to do more to make college affordable and keep talented students in the state. Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Wake County Republican, said her own son went to Arizona State University because of an attractive offer there.
“These colleges all over the country want our students,” she said.
Shanta Jackson, a Winston-Salem State alumna, said she views the legislation as a major threat to historically black universities. “Don’t have us coming back here begging for our very existence every two years,” she said, referring to the revenue loss.
“To me, all of this is a slap in the face,” Jackson said. “When someone wants to help you and you didn’t ask for help, be leery.”
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed to this story.
Annual tuition and fees (2016-17)
Elizabeth City State - $2,800 (in state), $15,771 (out of state); $2,088 (fees)
Fayetteville State - $2,923 (in state), $14,531 (out of state); $2,137 (fees)
UNC Pembroke - $3,531 (in state), $14,475 (out of state); $2,204 (fees)
Western Carolina - $3,893 (in state), $14,286 (out of state); $2,695 (fees)
Winston-Salem State - $3,335 (in state), $13,446 (out of state); $2,378 (fees)