PEMBROKE — After meeting this week with legislators, the chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is optimistic about a bill that would slash the cost of tuition to attend UNCP and four other universities in the UNC system.
Critics of SB 873 worry that while it may make higher education accessible to more students, sharply reducing tuition could squeeze funding for the affected schools, many of which have a history of serving minority students.
Dr. Robin Cummings, chancellor of UNCP, issued a statement to The Robesonian that was also shared with staff and students.
“Access to higher education has been at the core of UNC Pembroke’s mission since its founding 129 years ago, so we welcome discussion about ensuring college is within reach for as many people as possible,” Cummings said in the memo. “However, we have raised questions regarding the implementation of SB 873, should it become law, as well as potential unintended effects on our campus, specifically regarding financial sustainability and the value of our brand.”
SB 873, known as the Access to Affordable Higher Education Act, would reduce reduce tuition for in-state students at UNCP, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, Winston-Salem State University and Western Carolina University to $500 per semester. Out-of-state students would pay $2,500 per semester.
Additionally, tuition would be fixed for all UNC System students throughout their enrollment, meaning their tuition would not increase from what they paid as freshmen. The enrollment period for four-year programs is defined by the bill as eight consecutive semesters. The tuition measures would take effect in fall 2018.
The primary sponsor of the bill is Republican Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Western Carolina University alum, who called the tuition measures a “marketing tool” to draw more students to the five schools, some of which have seen declining enrollment in recent years. UNCP is an exception, having seen its largest freshman class ever enroll at the start of the 2015-2016 year.
The bill’s original language prompted some worries that instead of increasing enrollment, reducing tuition would cut funding that the schools cannot make up elsewhere or stigmatize the affected schools.
“When I first saw the bill I immediately called the [Cummings] because I wanted to know what the folks at UNCP thought about it,” said Sen. Jane Smith, a Democrat who represents Robeson and Columbus counties. “We were concerned that lowering tuition sounds wonderful at first glance, but you don’t want to do something that may make people think the diplomas have been devalued.”
Smith said she feels better about the bill now that chancellors in the UNC system have been able to give legislators their input. She is still concerned about what would happen to students should legislators in the future change the tuition measures, but that’s a risk with just about any bill, she said.
“There is constructive dialogue occurring with the potential to shape this legislation into policy that could benefit our students, our campus, and our constituency,” Cummings said of the “productive” Wednesday meeting with legislators, chancellors and UNC administration.
Apodaca estimated that changes instituted by the bill would cost $61 million in its first year, WRAL reported. SB 873, in its current form, calls for the UNC system’s budget to be increased by up to $70 million beginning with the 2018-2019 fiscal year. UNCP would stand to lose about $10 million in tuition, money that would need to be made up by the state.
But Cummings stressed the bill is liable to change. The bill has been through several Senate committees but has not yet received a vote on the Senate floor or been reviewed by members of the state House.
“I can’t stress enough the fluidity involved in the legislative process. Already SB 873 has been updated from its original form. The proposal has yet to be heard in the House, where if considered, additional revisions are possible,” he said. However, as a result of our recent discussions, we feel very optimistic and encouraged the eventual legislation may result in a policy that will help UNCP build on our commitment to access and affordability while enhancing our value.”
The bill originally called for name changes at the historically black schools — Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, Winston-Salem State University — but that provision was eliminated.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.