Are new N.C. A&T and N.C. Central scholarships aimed at smoothing way for name changes at 3 other black schools?

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

Senate Bill 873, the plan to slash tuition to $500 per semester at five college campuses, has sparked outcry from critics who fear it’s a backdoor budget cut for those schools, and that it could force three historically black universities to change their character and mission.

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.

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).

Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and Winston-Salem State are historically black schools. UNC Pembroke was once known as Pembroke State College for Indians. All five of the schools have struggled with lagging enrollment, which bill sponsor Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, and other sponsors cite as part of their reason for lowering tuition.

Many alumni from the historically black schools have recoiled from the plan. Lower tuition is good, they say, but does that mean the schools’ budgets will be cut to make up for it? Much of the skepticism is based on the fact that the plan comes from Senate Republicans, who haven’t exactly been cozying up to African American causes over the past few years.

Overlooked in all the hubbub is the fact that an eye-opening plum provision has been tucked into the legislation to benefit the University of North Carolina system’s two largest historically black campuses.

The bill sets aside $3.2 million to seed as many as 50 full-ride merit scholarships at both campuses, similar to the Morehead-Cain Scholarships at UNC Chapel Hill or the Park Scholarships at N.C. State. The Cheatham-White Scholarships would be named in honor of Henry Cheatham and George White, two African American Republicans who represented North Carolina in Congress around the turn of the 20th century.

Why create two expensive new scholarships in the same bill that cuts tuition income at campuses across the state?

“I would describe that as a sweetener for two of the leading self-sustaining HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) to get those folks to go along” with SB 873, said Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg.

Such scholarships would be “a game changer” for A&T and Central, he added, but reaction to SB873 from such quarters is mixed. African Americans just don’t trust Republican leadership on this.

“There are segments of Senate Bill 873 that are very questionable, particularly regarding the future of North Carolina’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, said in a statement.

That’s not stopping Apodaca, apparently. Ford said the bill’s powerful sponsor was slated to meet with him Tuesday, and has been meeting with leaders of historically black schools to discuss the legislation.

As Ford rightly noted, a key test of the Senate’s determination to push forward on this massive overhaul will come when the Senate unveils its budget. Will SB873 be in it? If so, will the budget specify how – or if – the multi-million-dollar budget hole SB 873 potentially creates for state universities will be backfilled?

In any other context, the Cheatham-White Scholarships would be a heartening addition to North Carolina’s higher education landscape. And we’d all like to see college become more affordable, not to mention seeing aggressive action to fix struggling schools.

But under these circumstances, SB873 leaves far too many big financial questions unanswered. And the Cheatham-White Scholarships look like a giant political head-fake aimed at keeping two major alumni networks from joining any fight against the plan. I suspect they’ll find the HBCUs won’t be that easily divided, or conquered. --Eric Frazier