Promise of lower tuition is attracting more applicants to these three UNC campuses

A student shows off an unmanned aerial vehicle at Elizabeth City State University’s mobile robotics lab in this 2014 file photo.
A student shows off an unmanned aerial vehicle at Elizabeth City State University’s mobile robotics lab in this 2014 file photo. N&O file photo

Visitors and applications are on the rise at the University of North Carolina campuses offering a tuition break as part of the new NC Promise plan.

The reduced tuition program, which starts this fall, establishes a $1,000 tuition price tag on a year of college for North Carolina residents at Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University. Out-of-state students will also get a reduction, paying $5,000 a year in tuition at the schools.

So far, interest is up as word has spread about NC Promise. The program, created by the legislature in 2016 and funded this year at about $51 million, gives families a lower tuition option in three areas — the northeastern, southeastern and western regions of the state.

Completed applications from prospective students are up 50 percent at UNCP, 11 percent at Elizabeth City State and 12 percent at Western Carolina, compared with this time last year. At UNC Pembroke, officials report a big spike in people looking at marketing material about NC Promise – a 2,900 percent jump in online traffic from North Carolina residents and 11,400 percent increase from South Carolina residents. UNCP is about 20 miles from the South Carolina line.

Robin Cummings, chancellor of UNC Pembroke. File photo

UNCP quadrupled its marketing budget to promote the program, said Chancellor Robin Cummings.

“We see it as a very positive thing at this point,” Cummings said. “We’re seeing a good response that is exciting to us.”

The price cut only applies to tuition, which is $2,856 annually at ECSU, $3,602 at UNCP and $3,971 at WCU. Other costs, such as fees, room, board and books, won’t be discounted.

The total annual price for North Carolina students will drop 13 percent, to $12,680, at ECSU. The decrease will be 15 percent at UNC Pembroke, for a total cost of $14,675. At Western Carolina, North Carolina residents will see a decrease of 16 percent in the total tab, which will be $15,665.

“It will take an education that already is affordable and make it more affordable,” Cummings said.

That’s still not enough for many students. In 2015-16, about 56 percent of Pembroke students received Pell Grants, the federal grant program for low-income families, according to federal data. In the end, though, Cummings said NC Promise will mean less debt for students.

“For our students, this is a real good opportunity,” he said. “Sometimes, as we’ve seen, the difference between the car breaking down and not breaking down is the difference between being able to come back to school next semester. This is a big difference, it’s a big help.”

UNCP has 6,300 students, well below its prerecession high enrollment of about 6,900, Cummings said. The new tuition program may set the university on course for growth, with perhaps 500 to 1,000 additional students in the near term, Cummings said.

ECSU recovery

That’s what leaders at Elizabeth City State are hoping. The university has experienced a devastating period since the recession, with enrollment plummeting 59 percent from 2010 to 2016. Significant budget cuts followed as a result. But last fall, enrollment increased for the first time in seven years, to 1,411 students. NC Promise is one element of ECSU’s overall recovery plan.

Recruiting students has not been a problem at Western Carolina, which is west of Asheville in the mountain town of Cullowhee. The university’s undergraduate and graduate enrollment, at more than 11,000 last fall, has increased nearly 18 percent since 2011.

For seven of the past eight years, WCU has seen an increase in applications from high school students. For last fall, applications reached 19,476.

So it’s a little hard to tell what’s driving this year’s increase, said Mike Langford, director of undergraduate admissions. But first-year applications are running almost 12 percent ahead of last year, even though the online application was activated by the university two weeks later this year. Transfer applications are up 54 percent over last year.

Western Carolina University students work on a mock crime scene involving buried remains in this file photo. File photo

Langford said WCU has seen a surge in people showing up for campus tours. The real test will be whether more students who are admitted eventually enroll, he said, which could be difficult to predict because the university is in uncharted waters.

“If anything, it’s piqued people’s interest in taking a look at us,” Langford said. “We’re the westernmost institution in the public system in the state of North Carolina. You’ve got to pass a lot of other schools to come to Western and take a tour.”

Awareness at WCU

Western Carolina is less than an hour’s drive from the South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee lines.

Fall open house events at Western Carolina showed a growing awareness of the program. In September, most participants were not familiar with NC Promise; by November, a majority of attendees knew about NC Promise.

The three campuses, and UNC President Margaret Spellings, produced a joint video to promote the program. It has been marketed to parents and students in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia on social media.

The $500-a-semester plan created by the legislature has not always been a popular idea. Originally, it was also targeted toward three historically black universities in the system. Alumni and supporters of the campuses rallied against the cheaper tuition plan, fearing that the replacement state funding wouldn’t be permanent. Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State were removed from the original bill, but Elizabeth City State was ultimately added back in.

The UNCP chancellor said he remains concerned that state funding may not always be there to support the program. But for now, he’s encouraging students to take advantage of it. In the last month, he said he had visited four or five high schools in his area to talk up NC Promise.

“The students that we serve are students who are, honestly, economically challenged,” Cummings said, “even though some may look at this and say, ‘Well, that’s not a real big break.’ But $2,500-$2,600 a year, I can tell you, can make a difference between students being able to continue their education and not having to stop it to go and make money. It’s a big deal, especially in our part of North Carolina.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill