$500 degree programs could be coming soon to North Carolina

Supporters believe the proposal will help boost enrollment at low-performing universities

North Carolina is considering a bill (SB 873) that would set tuition at $500 per semester for in-state students at certain public institutions, Jane Stancill reports for the News & Observer

The "Access to Affordable College Education Act" would create low-cost degrees at several historically minority-serving institutions, as well as Western Carolina University (WCU).

Under the bill, legislators would:

  • Create merit scholarships for students at North Carolina A&T State University and North Carolina Central University;
  • Lock in tuition and fees for public university students for eight consecutive semesters or 10 semesters for students in five-year programs;
  • Reduce student fees between 10% and 25% for all public universities and limit future increases to 3% annually;
  • Reduce tuition to $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students at Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, University of North Carolina (UNC) at Pembroke, Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), and WCU;
  • Study the effect of lifting the cap on out-of-state students at the five universities; and
  • Consider changing universities' names to improve their "academic strength, enrollment, and diversity."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Hendersonville), says the proposal would cost between $60 million and $80 million annually and would be financed through the state's general fund.

WSSU Chancellor Elwood Robinson is currently reviewing the bill.

Supporters tout benefits of lowered tuition

Supporters of the bill believe that reduced tuition will bring more students to campuses that have struggled to boost their enrollment numbers. They also argue that the proposal would help North Carolina adhere to a mandate in the state constitution that calls for public higher education to be offered at no cost, "as far as practicable." Advocates note that over the past decade, there has been an average increase of 72% in tuition and fees at UNC schools, with an average cumulative debt of $23,440 per student. 

Prioritizing considerations for tuition setting

"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," Apodaca says.

Chancellor has concerns about effects of proposal

In an op-ed, Fayetteville State Chancellor James Anderson argued that renaming minority institutions perpetuates the poor treatment they have long endured.

"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 also said slashing tuition so dramatically could make schools less competitive, noting, "After all, if someone offers to sell you a $500 car, wouldn't you question its value?"

Managing the politics of tuition changes

UNC President Margaret Spellings says she does not believe central authorities should name institutions and that the decision should be left to schools themselves (Stancill, News & Observer, 5/14). 

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