New $500-per-semester tuition plan helps N.C.families, may hurt colleges

The Observer editorial board

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, sponsored Senate Bill 873, which seeks to lower college costs.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, sponsored Senate Bill 873, which seeks to lower college costs. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Sen. Bernie Sanders wants to make public colleges free for everyone. Don’t look now, but conservatives in our state legislature want to make tuition darned-near-free for students at five campuses struggling with low enrollment.

Skeptics keep pelting Sanders with questions about how he’ll pay for his proposal. We should ask the same of the sponsors of Senate Bill 873, dubbed the “Access to Affordable College Education Act.” More specifically, we should ask how they’ll pay for it without inflicting huge budget cuts on our universities.

The plan guarantees no tuition or fee hikes for students in the 17-campus University of North Carolina system, provided they graduate in four years. It would cut student fees at all system campuses by 10 to 25 percent and cap future increases at no more than 3 percent per academic year.

And perhaps most dramatically, it would slash tuition to $500 per semester for in-state students at Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, UNC Pembroke, Winston-Salem State and Western Carolina. (Out-of-state students would pay $2,500 per semester).

Remember what your dad always said about offers that seem too good to be true? In this instance, the offer is indeed true, but it comes with some troubling – and unspecified – fine print.

Lowering tuition at those five schools could cost the state about $65 million annually in lost revenue, according to early estimates obtained by the (Raleigh) News & Observer.

Will the state respond by cutting programs, essentially making those schools glorified community colleges? Or will it hike out-of-state tuition at other campuses to plug the budget gap?

Beyond the five tuition-lowered schools, other campuses could develop budget holes due to fee reductions and restraints on tuition hikes. How will those be plugged? What happens if the five schools siphon so many students from other campuses that more red ink flows in regular-tuition schools’ budgets?

Of the five schools, all except Western Carolina were initially created for black and American Indian students. The bill raises the possibility of changing their names to increase marketability and to reflect the expected influx of new students.

Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, told the editorial board Wednesday that supporters of historically black schools applaud the tuition cuts, but are braced to fight program cuts and name changes.

We commend lawmakers for seeking to reduce the cost of college and to bolster sagging enrollment at struggling campuses. Elizabeth City State, for instance, has seen enrollment plunge 50 percent in five years amidst leadership turnover, administrative blunders and other problems.

But lawmakers needn’t make the necessary reforms by forcing more budget cuts on our universities. They have a budget surplus available. Or they can bring as much as $170 million annually back into the state’s coffers by reinstating the estate tax, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

They have options. We hope they choose wisely.