The current North Carolina Senate budget for 2016-17 includes a controversial plan to substantially reduce tuition and student fee revenue at five UNC system institutions: Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke, Western Carolina University, and Winston-Salem State University. Currently, the plan limits tuition at these universities to $1,000 per year. Student fees are also capped. The Senate plans to subsidize the funds lost through a general state budget commitment of $70 million.
While the intentions of this legislation — to make a college education more readily accessible — are indeed quite noble, the means of this action are misguided. I would like to propose a better solution that accomplishes more and costs the same:
Use the $70 million in state funding to create an unprecedented scholarship program for these five universities.
Such a program would accomplish the same chief goal as the current legislation: It would enable scores of students to attend these institutions for a much cheaper cost. At Western Carolina, for example, the original legislation was expected to create a $30 million gap in lost tuition revenue. For that amount of additional funding, the university could fund 5,000 scholarships of $6,000 each — enabling more than 56 percent of the entire university’s undergraduate enrollment to attend for the same price as the original SB 873 legislation.
The scholarship program would enable each university to recruit, admit, and enroll students more selectively. In today’s higher education market, the most sought-after students often enroll at colleges and universities that offer the most robust financial aid. To that end, an unparalleled financial aid program at these five institutions would suddenly provide them the opportunity to compete with much larger and better financed institutions — including leading public research and private liberal arts colleges and universities.
Creating a $70 million scholarship fund across these institutions would preserve each university’s price point for students who are able to afford their tuition payments. As many in the private industry know — from the people behind YETI coolers to the makers of BMWs — price points are associated with quality. To that end, consumers, and in this case, students and their parents, are attracted to more expensive colleges when they’re assured they will be able to afford them thanks to financial aid. Using the additional state funding for scholarships will allow these universities to maintain their perceived dollar value without being inaccessible.
Finally, by shifting funding to create a scholarship program at these five universities, the Senate won’t jeopardize future growth and expansion of their physical plants, negatively affect their abilities to finance debt, or endanger their ability to service debt that currently exists. If the scholarship program inspires student enrollment at these institutions — which it no doubt will as they become more accessible — the universities will be better positioned to accommodate that growth.
The North Carolina Senate has an historic opportunity to re-establish itself as a champion of higher education and restore a critical component of our hallowed university system to prominence. It’s a much better solution to the problem of college affordability in North Carolina, and it leaves our UNC system stronger as a result.