Education

HBCUs to be dropped from low-tuition proposal at UNC campuses, sponsor says

HBCU students and alumni rally against Senate Bill 873

Students and alumni of Historic Black Colleges and Universities rallied against Senate Bill 873 on the Halifax Mall behind the North Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C.
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Students and alumni of Historic Black Colleges and Universities rallied against Senate Bill 873 on the Halifax Mall behind the North Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C.

Historically black universities will be dropped from a legislative plan to slash tuition to $500 a semester, said Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, the sponsor of a bill that would have affected several UNC campuses.

His comment came as opposition mounted to the low-tuition plan. Several hundred alumni rallied outside the legislature Wednesday, saying the legislation threatens the economic viability of three black campuses: Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State universities. The protesters expressed skepticism about the bill’s language that promised that the state would cover lost tuition revenue up to $70 million in 2018-19.

Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said he would put forth an amendment that would remove the three historically black campuses but keep UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina in the tuition-reduction proposal. Asked whether the outcry on behalf of historically black colleges and universities was behind his decision, Apodaca said, “If you can’t give away $70 million, then I’m not going to try to.”

Senate Bill 873 has generated controversy from the start, but it moved forward in Senate committees last week as Apodaca, a Western Carolina graduate, removed language that called for UNC officials to consider renaming campuses. This week, the bill was folded into the Senate budget proposal.

We love our university. Just let us be; leave us alone; let us do our work.

Tony Lassiter, a graduate of Elizabeth City State University

Alumni groups organized. At a packed news conference and an afternoon rally Wednesday, supporters of the state’s historically black colleges and universities said the measure could harm schools that for more than a century have been a key part of African-American heritage and success in North Carolina.

“We love our university,” said Tony Lassiter, a retired Department of Correction employee and graduate of Elizabeth City State. “Just let us be; leave us alone; let us do our work. We can do it on our own, and we can sustain our own, but do not try to take our pride, our love and our dignity.”

Video: North Carolina Central University student Raven Cheatham and alumni of Historically Black Universities in North Carolina gather to speak out against Senate Bill 873 at the North Carolina Legislature on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 in Raleigh, N

Patti Sanders-Smith, of the Winston-Salem State alumni association, said that on the surface, the legislation attempts to make a college education more affordable.

“However, to many, it is seen as yet another attack on historically black colleges and universities,” Sanders-Smith said. “The five state-supported historically black colleges and universities have always been underfunded. They are expected to do more with less.”

Far from cheapening education … what it does is it creates an opportunity for more people to have the benefit of a college education.

Senate leader Phil Berger

Republican co-sponsors of the plan say it would boost enrollment at smaller campuses and provide a low-cost alternative at the five named campuses. “Far from cheapening education … what it does is it creates an opportunity for more people to have the benefit of a college education,” Senate Leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said Tuesday.

A low price tag could lure more students to campuses that have seen flat or declining enrollment because of changes in financial aid and increased minimum admissions requirements. Often cited is Elizabeth City State, which has seen its student population plummet more than 50 percent in five years.

On Wednesday, HBCU supporters blamed that enrollment drop on comments by lawmakers who had talked of closing ECSU a few years ago.

The measure also would reduce fees at all state universities by 5 percent and would fix tuition for any UNC system student for four years of enrollment. A new merit scholarship program, called the Cheatham-White scholarships, would be created at the state’s two larger historically black campuses – N.C. A&T State and N.C. Central universities. Apodaca said he would keep the Cheatham-White scholarships, which would be funded with private donations and matching state funds.

Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat from Northampton County, said a promise of $70 million by the state did not solve long-standing inequities between majority and minority campuses, and she urged HBCUs to unite against the legislation.

“We must stand together,” she said. “This is a classic example of divide and conquer.”

Several supporters of private historically black colleges joined the cause Wednesday. At the news conference in theLegislative Building, the president of the private St. Augustine’s University, Everett Ward, said: “Just imagine this nation without the intellectual capital that has come from our institutions. … We cannot afford to jeopardize not one of our institutions.”

Outside, several hundred more gathered on Halifax Mall, many proudly sporting school colors on hats, T-shirts and umbrellas. Shouts of “Aggie Pride” or “Bronco Pride” echoed in the crowd.

Mildred Council, who heads a Shaw University alumni group in Pitt County, wore Shaw paraphernalia from head to toe. She attended the rally even though the legislation wouldn’t affect the private historically black university in Raleigh. Shaw is the state’s oldest historically black university and spawned other schools that opened doors to black students more than a century ago.

“I’m here to support all of our schools, because we are the mother school of these schools they have targeted,” she said. “It’s about all of us. When one struggles, we all struggle.”

Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, had a dire warning about the legislation. He pointed out that there could be no guarantee of funds to cover tuition losses. No legislative body can bind a future one, and that would lead black colleges to have to fight for their survival annually, he said.

“Believe me, if this bill passes,” Michaux said, “in five years’ time, those three schools are going to be gone.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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