Under the Dome

$500 tuition? Big shift sought for NC higher ed

James Anderson, Chancellor of Fayetteville State University, right, speaks during a meeting of the UNC Board of Governors held at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville on March 3, 2016.
James Anderson, Chancellor of Fayetteville State University, right, speaks during a meeting of the UNC Board of Governors held at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville on March 3, 2016. cseward@newsobserver.com

A semester of college tuition for $500.

Proponents of that concept say the low price tag would lure more North Carolina students to campuses that have seen flat or declining enrollment. But some are wary, including at least one university chancellor.

Senate Bill 873, filed last week, has the ingredients for a big shift in the state’s higher education system, college affordability and the future of historically minority institutions.

The proposed legislation, dubbed the “Access to Affordable College Education Act,” primarily would establish a low-cost degree at several historically minority schools, as well as Western Carolina University. It comes at a time when college costs and student debt have emerged as major issues in the presidential campaign and the national consciousness.

Beyond the attention-grabbing $500 tuition price, the bill is complicated and has a number of moving parts. It would do several things:

▪ Lock in tuition and fees for public university students for eight consecutive semesters (or 10 semesters for 5-year programs.) The idea is to give students a fixed rate with a built-in incentive for graduating on time.

▪ Decrease student fees 10-25 percent for all public universities, and limit future increases to 3 percent a year.

▪ Dramatically reduce tuition to $500 a semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students at five campuses: Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, UNC Pembroke, Winston-Salem State and Western Carolina universities. ECSU, FSU and WSSU are historically black universities, while UNCP was established for the education of American Indians.

▪ Study the impact of lifting the cap on out-of-state students at the five campuses. UNC system policy currently mandates an 18 percent cap on out-of-state freshmen – a longstanding rule that reserves the majority of seats for the children of North Carolina taxpayers.

▪ Study the impact of each university’s name on “academic strength, enrollment and diversity.” The UNC Board of Governors could ask for potential name changes.

▪ Establish merit scholarships at the state’s two large historically black universities – N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro and N.C. Central University in Durham. The awards would be called Cheatham-White scholarships and would mimic the Park Scholarships at N.C. State and the Morehead-Cain Scholarships at UNC-Chapel Hill. They would be full-ride awards, covering tuition, fees, housing, meals, expenses, laptops and summer enrichment activities. The scholarships would be paid for with $3.2 million in state funds starting this year, which would be matched with private funds.

The sponsor of the bill, Hendersonville Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, said the low tuition proposal would cost $60 million to $80 million a year and would come from the state’s general fund.

Supporters of the plan say it would help North Carolina live up to a mandate in the state constitution for the benefits of public higher education to be free, “as far as practicable.” They cite an average increase of 72 percent in tuition and fees at UNC schools in the past decade and an average cumulative debt of $23,440 per student.

Apodaca said rising costs and debt are threatening the value of a student’s investment. “That’s why we are committed to making college more accessible and affordable, strengthening our universities to make them more competitive and encouraging our students to complete their degrees in four years,” he said in the announcement about the bill.

Others sense different motives among Republican legislators, who have in recent years discussed closing Elizabeth City State or merging HBCUs.

BlueNC, a left-of-center blog, was direct in its assessment: “This proposed bill looks like a ‘back door’ way to simply erase the historical identity of these institutions and effectively end their unique service to minority communities.”

The low-tuition plan was discussed quietly in the Senate early this year, as reported in The N&O in February. That was before the arrival of UNC President Margaret Spellings, who started in March. Also, chancellors at the affected institutions knew little or nothing about it when closed-door meetings were happening at the legislature.

James Anderson, Fayetteville State chancellor, raised concerns in an op-ed piece that was submitted to several North Carolina newspapers before the bill was filed. The proposal, he said, perpetuates unequal treatment that minority institutions have faced throughout history.

“I am waiting on a rational explanation as to why there needs to be a name change among the ‘select’ institutions,” he wrote. “Let’s be honest: Appalachian State, East Carolina, Western Carolina, and North Carolina A&T are not going to be asked to change their name. So why us or other HBU’s?”

He said excellence should be the focus. He pointed out that the 149-year-old FSU is the first historically black university to be chosen for a mentoring program with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and its nursing program has a 100 percent pass rate on licensure exams.

A heavily discounted rate could put the cheaper schools at a competitive disadvantage, Anderson said. “After all, if someone offers to sell you a $500 car, wouldn’t you question its value?” he asked.

The name change seems to have provoked particularly strong reaction. When Spellings recently visited Elizabeth City State on her statewide get-to-know-you tour, she was asked about the issue at a trustee meeting.

“I have said very clearly that I do not believe that any central authority ought to be foisting a name on you or anyone else,” Spellings said, as reported by The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City. “If that’s an organic effort, if you all decide that works best for your institution, this board of trustees can certainly recommend it and we would take it under consideration, but to mandate a particular renaming or rebranding, I think, is ill-advised.”

As for the fixed tuition idea, research in another state showed that it’s not a panacea for keeping costs down.

A study last year by University of Illinois researchers found that the state’s “Truth-in-Tuition” law caused tuition at the state’s public universities to increase more than if the campuses had adjusted their rates annually.

WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson said in a statement that he’s reviewing the bill and considering its impact.

“For 124 years, Winston-Salem State University has provided access to an exceptional education to promising students who may have otherwise been denied that opportunity,” he said. “We presently offer the third least-expensive tuition for resident undergraduates of all UNC schools. We are keenly interested in having discussions on how to ensure college is within reach for all people who desire to pursue it.”