A UNC system faculty group has raised concerns about a Senate bill that would lower tuition at five campuses, saying that it would alter historically black universities and possibly cripple them financially.
In a letter sent to UNC system President Margaret Spellings and forwarded to key lawmakers, the UNC Faculty Assembly picked apart Senate Bill 873, legislation dubbed the “Access to Affordable College Education Act.” The bill calls for fixed tuition for a student’s four years of enrollment, reduced fees and tuition rates of $500 per semester at five campuses, including four that primarily serve black and Native American students.
The letter to Spellings analyzed the bill’s provisions and intent, concluding that it would hurt the campuses’ ability to provide high-quality education and “may require campus closures.”
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“This legislation would essentially convert the minority campuses into inexpensive magnet schools for privileged and racial majority populations, with the net effect of displacing African American and Native American students, thereby fundamentally altering the traditional mission of the four named minority schools – Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Winston-Salem State University,” the faculty letter said.
The fifth school that would be affected by the legislation is Western Carolina University.
The letter urges legislators, Gov. Pat McCrory and the UNC Board of Governors “to carefully consider the implications of this legislation for further damaging the quality and reputation of public higher education in this state.”
I don’t understand how anybody can be upset when the legislature goes out of its way to try to figure out how to give a kid a sustainable tuition.
Harry Smith, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors’ Budget and Finance Committee
Supporters of the plan say lawmakers are trying to come up with a creative way to shore up struggling campuses while providing an affordable alternative to every North Carolinian.
Harry Smith, chairman of the Board of Governors’ Budget and Finance Committee, said the conversation with lawmakers started with ideas about how to create a healthy future for Elizabeth City State, where enrollment has plummeted by half in the past five years.
“We’re trying to develop a path of success for them where they can be successful and attract kids,” Smith said, including more students from across the Virginia border.
“I don’t understand how anybody can be upset when the legislature goes out of its way to try to figure out how to give a kid a sustainable tuition,” added Smith, who participated in early discussions about the legislation and called it “a great deal.”
Would state make up the difference?
The key question, say faculty and others, is whether the state would subsidize the universities that stand to lose substantial tuition revenue. Annual tuition next year ranges from $2,800 at Elizabeth City State to $3,900 at Western Carolina; annual student fees range from $1,800 to $2,200 at the five campuses. Cutting tuition to $1,000 per year would mean each campus could lose millions.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Apodaca, has said the tuition cut costs $60 million to $80 million and would come from the state’s general fund. But the bill does not include language about any additional state funding, and the low-cost tuition wouldn’t take effect until the fall of 2018 – so it wouldn’t show up in this year’s budget.
“Unless provisions are made to make these institutions whole after these tuition cuts, it’s hard to avoid concluding this is a direct attack on our minority schools,” said Steve Leonard, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor of political science and chairman of the assembly. The assembly is a systemwide faculty group that advises the president.
Apodaca couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. When he introduced the bill last week, he cited rising student debt as a threat to students’ college investment. The bill, he said, would make college more affordable while strengthening campuses. It was also touted as a low-cost solution in every geographic corner of the state – giving any citizen access to a degree.
The bill cites the state constitution’s requirement for free higher education, “as far as practicable,” but points out that in-state tuition and fees have jumped 72 percent in the past decade.
Faculty pushed back, saying that the affordability problem rests on the doorstep of the General Assembly.
“Tuition and fees have climbed because the NC state legislature has shifted the burden of University support from public sources to individual students,” the faculty letter said.
The letter said state spending per degree has declined by $6,865, while individual spending on tuition per degree has increased by $6,537 from 2008 to 2015.
The bill directs UNC officials to consider renaming universities, and the assembly asserted that it’s ‘likely that the historical identity of the named minority institutions would be questioned if not changed.’
David McCord, a psychology professor and chairman of the Western Carolina Faculty Senate, doesn’t agree with everything in the Faculty Assembly letter. But he said there is rising concern about the bill. Faculty there in Cullowhee plan to meet Monday to discuss the issue.
Apodaca, a Western Carolina graduate, has been a staunch supporter of the university and likely has the best intentions for the university, McCord said. Still, there are unaswered questions.
The plan seems to be a populist return to the old days in North Carolina, adhering to the constitutional mandate. On the other hand, the Republican-led legislature has spent modestly and created tax cuts, so there’s no reason to believe there will be appetite for a lot of new university spending, McCord said.
“I could do a real positive spin to this plan – we can’t quite afford the Bernie Sanders plan, but we can do a third of our schools to enhance access to the people, and that’s a great thing,” McCord said. “But where is that money getting withdrawn from? Is it roads, is it K-12, is it health care?”
▪ The bill would also require a 10 percent to 25 percent reduction in student fees at all campuses, which in and of itself is a complicated issue. Fees cover a number of different university functions, including debt service on buildings, technology, student services and athletics.
▪ The bill would loosen the 18 percent cap on out-of-state freshmen at the five targeted campuses, something the faculty letter warned would lead to higher-paying white students displacing North Carolina’s minority students.
▪ The bill directs UNC officials to consider renaming universities, and the assembly asserted that it’s “likely that the historical identity of the named minority institutions would be questioned if not changed.”
Already, leaders of historically black universities have expressed concern about the legislatively mandated NC Guaranteed Admission Program, which would divert some of the weakest students to two years of community college before allowing them to enroll at UNC schools. A study by UNC and the N.C. Community College System suggested NC GAP would disproportionately affect rural and minority students in North Carolina.
Neither Spellings nor the Board of Governors has stated an official position on the legislation, which has been referred to a legislative education committee for review. Spellings could not be reached for comment Thursday. The board meets next week.
As the Senate bill plays out, the question of how to achieve affordability is likely to be front and center.
“Tuition and fees, I think most of us would agree that they are spiraling out of control, and we are sympathetic with the legislature saying we need to curtail those,” McCord said.