Mona Zahir is less concerned about how Senate Bill 873 will affect her – she graduates next May from Winston-Salem State University – than how the controversial legislation could harm future students at the historically black college.
“I have major concerns for the sustainability of my institution and other historically black colleges and universities,” Zahir, WSSU student body president, told members of the Board of Governors, including UNC President Margaret Spellings, at the board’ first regular public comment session Friday. “I ask that you reconsider what that would look like long-term.”
The bill would set tuition at $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students at five universities. Three of them are historically black: WSSU, Elizabeth City State University and Fayetteville State University. A fourth, UNC Pembroke was created to educate American Indians. The fifth is Western Carolina University.
While the bill would let the state budget director, on the recommendation of the Board of Governors, allocate $70 million to the universities to cover the lost tuition revenue, critics worry that money could eventually dry up. Without full funding, these universities could have to lay off staff and faculty, or even to close, they say.
If the bill becomes law, the changes would go into effect in the fall of 2018. The bill does not include extra funding after the 2018-19 school year.
The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican from Hendersonville. On Thursday, the bill was withdrawn from the full Senate and sent to the rules committee for possible changes. A provision to change the names of these universities already has been struck from the most recent version of the bill.
Apodaca and bill supporters have framed the legislation as a way to make college more affordable. The average debt of North Carolina students who graduate from a four-year public institution is $23,440, up 52 percent since the 2007-08 school year, according to data from the Southern Regional Education Board.
“This is a well-intentioned bill to improve access and affordability,” said Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette.
However, by focusing almost solely on minority universities, the bill has raised concerns that other agendas are afoot. Altha Cravey, a UNC geography professor, told the board the bill “is being sold as accessibility, but it’s a thinly veiled attack on HBCUs.”
The legislation would also lift the 18 percent cap on admission of out-of-state students, which, the bill states, “may increase the number, academic strength, and diversity of student applications at those institutions.” Critics have interpreted that language to mean the legacy and culture of minorities at these schools could be diluted.
By charging so little for tuition, the universities could unintentionally send a message to prospective students that a cheaper education is a lesser one.
Spellings said that perception is incorrect, and that the cost of tuition and the quality of education are not always in concert. “Our universities offer amazing value for all of our students,” she said.
UNC leadership is preparing to give additional feedback to lawmakers about the bill before it goes to a full vote, Spellings said. “We hope to get a place where we can enthusiastically support it,” she said.
After months of protests at its meetings, the UNC Board of Governors held its first regular public comment session Friday.
Public comment periods will be held following board meetings for about an hour. As many as 15 speakers will be allowed to speak to the board on any relevant university matter for up to three minutes. A panel of Board of Governors members – about five – will attend.
The opportunity for public input was suggested by UNC President Margaret Spellings, who has faced opposition from groups of protesters since she started in March.