Lower tuition may be coming to some UNC campuses

A plan to drastically lower tuition at several UNC system campuses is being considered by the state Senate leadership – a proposal that could create a more affordable option for students while altering the size and makeup of universities initially created for black and American Indian students.

Legislation has been drafted with input from system administrators and a few UNC Board of Governors members, according to documents obtained by The News & Observer. Talks in recent weeks have focused on financial models for a less expensive degree at historically black Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State, and UNC Pembroke, once known as Pembroke State College for Indians.

At one point, UNC Asheville was considered for the plan, and reductions at other small campuses may be on the table.

According to one version of the “Access to Affordable Education Act,” the bill’s sponsor would be Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican. Under the plan, tuition would be lowered to $500 a year for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students. The proposal could open the door to changing the names of the campuses that historically had a minority student population, as well as easing the 18 percent limit on out-of-state freshmen. The draft mentions increasing the “number, academic strength and diversity of student applications” at the campuses.

More out-of-state students plus markedly reduced tuition would presumably attract a larger, more diverse student body to the majority black schools and UNC Pembroke. It would shore up enrollment at some campuses that have seen declines in recent years because of changes in financial aid and increased minimum admission requirements across the UNC system.

The steepest drop – more than 50 percent in five years – occurred at Elizabeth City State in northeastern North Carolina. Budget cuts, turnover in leadership and other problems have prompted worry for ECSU’s future.

According to the draft, the lower tuition could cost the state about $65 million a year to account for lost revenue. Higher out-of-state tuition at other schools could help recoup the cost. Also under consideration is an incentive for all UNC system students to finish their degrees on time. Students would be guaranteed a fixed tuition and fee rate for four consecutive years.

The largest historically black universities – N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro and N.C. Central in Durham – were not mentioned in the reduced tuition proposal, but a memo from the UNC system suggested they should be included.

The ideas are preliminary, and it’s unclear whether they will gain traction in the coming short session of the legislature. Officials were tight-lipped on the proposal and said it was evolving.

“I really don’t want to get into the details,” said Lou Bissette, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. “There has been a lot of discussion about what we can do to reduce the tuition burden on our students, not only on our smaller campuses but across the system. There are some really good ideas out there. There are some great ideas about how we can help some of our institutions that are struggling.”

Bissette said there are various ideas floating around and he didn’t know where the discussion would end up. But he added that he’s optimistic that the proposals “could be game changers” for students.

Berger could not be reached for comment.

Others have talked about new ways of thinking of tuition. At a public affairs committee meeting of the UNC board last month, Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican, threw out the idea of zero tuition at Elizabeth City State as a way to draw students there.

“We’ve got to ... start being very creative in how to sustain these really important institutions in our state,” he said.

Chancellor James Anderson of Fayetteville State said he had not heard about the ideas for lower tuition. He said he wants to know more but was skeptical of a proposal that could be costly. “I’m not sure the Assembly is willing to take on that kind of subsidy,” he said.

He said campuses such as his cannot easily raise tuition when there are needs, because of the high percentage of students on federal Pell Grants. “We’re in this dilemma,” he said.

Talks on what could be a significant policy change began before the arrival March 1 of Margaret Spellings, who will become the next president of the UNC system. Bissette said Spellings is up to speed on the discussions. Spellings will be in Greensboro next week for a retreat with the board.

Even if the low tuition idea goes nowhere, it’s clear that 2016 is shaping up to be a year of potentially big changes in higher education.

Last year’s budget law required the implementation next year of a program called NC GAP, or the N.C. Guaranteed Admission Program. It would divert prospective UNC system students considered at academic risk to study at community colleges for two years, and then guarantee admission to a UNC campus. Educating more students at the community college level would be cheaper for the students and the state, supporters of NC GAP say.

The UNC system and community college system are conducting an analysis of how the program would work. That study is due to the legislature in early March. The legislature convenes in April.

For Anderson, NC GAP is a big concern because it will mean a loss of enrollment at UNC campuses and it assumes that community colleges are ready to absorb and educate more students. “I don’t like the fact that we’re admitting students and then telling them they can’t come,” he said. “I think that’s almost unethical.”

The system has ratcheted up admissions requirements, which has been a transition for campuses, Anderson said. But FSU has seen an increase in student retention – from 72 percent to 78 percent in students from first year to second year.

Anderson said he’s not against changes in public higher education in North Carolina.

“I’m OK with that as long as a lot of planning precedes these decisions,” he said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill