Raleigh, N.C. — A proposal heading to the Senate floor would set in-state tuition at five University of North Carolina campuses at $500 a semester for in-state students and would guarantee tuition for undergraduates at the other 11 UNC campuses wouldn't go up from the rate they pay as freshmen.
Sponsor Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, deleted a controversial provision from Senate Bill 873 that suggested renaming campuses such as Fayetteville State University so they carry a UNC brand.
Apodaca said the tuition provisions are designed to make college more affordable to more North Carolina families.
The five schools where tuition would be capped at $500 per semester, starting in the 2018-19 school year, are Fayetteville State, UNC-Pembroke, Elizabeth City State University, Winston-Salem State University and Western Carolina University. Out-of-state students at those campuses would pay $2,500 a semester.
Several lawmakers noted that four of the five schools – all except Western Carolina – have long traditions of serving minority students and expressed concern that lower tuition would turn them into second-class universities.
"We don't want it to look like we're getting a bargain-basement diploma," said Sen. Jane Smith, D-Robeson, whose district includes UNC-Pembroke.
Apodaca, a Western Carolina alumnus, said the five schools were chosen to accommodate students from across the state and said the lower tuition is simply a "marketing tool" to encourage more students to apply to and enroll at the schools. Some of them, such as Elizabeth City State, have battled declining enrollments in recent years, he noted.
"What we're trying to do is boost up the enrollment at these institutions and get them as near capacity as we possibly can," he said. "We think the competition for the $500 tuition will increase the caliber of student and the numbers of students who want to attend those institutions."
Several alumni from the affected schools said there are other ways to help increase enrollment without cutting tuition, which they said would hurt the schools financially and stigmatize them as a lower-quality education.
"In two to three years, we'll be back here begging for our lives," said Shonta Jackson, a Winston-Salem State alumna. "You will be destroying a tradition."
UNC President Margaret Spellings met with Apodaca, Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, and the chancellors of the affected institutions on Wednesday afternoon. Spellings said the plan to reduce tuition rates poses "implementation challenges" but could be accomplished if lawmakers filled the hole left by the reduction with general taxpayer support.
"Their intention is not to cut funding," she said. "My hope is we can get to a place where we in the system can be enthusiastic supporters of this legislation."
Legislative leaders are committed to providing the UNC system with money to cover the lost tuition revenue, Apodaca said, estimating the changes in the bill would cost $61 million in the first year. The changes wouldn't affect room or meal costs at any of the schools.
Robinson, a former member of the UNC Board of Governors, said she welcomes changes that have already been made to the bill.
"This opportunity for the people impacted to speak to the bill is critical," Robinson said, adding that she believes that the effort to lower tuition at a handful of UNC system schools would move forward, even if it doesn't look like the current legislation.
"I don't know what it will end up looking like," she said.
Under the bill, tuition at the remaining 11 UNC campuses would be fixed, starting this fall, at the rate a student paid as an entering freshman or transfer student for either eight or 10 semesters, depending on the length of the undergraduate degree program.
Apodaca said that provision would help families plan for the cost of college.
"We're not guaranteeing the folks going to those 11 other institutions that their costs will go down. All we're going to guarantee them is that they'll know what their cost is going to be when they enter," he said.
Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, noted that one of her children now attends Arizona State University because it provided a better cost option than any school in North Carolina.
"Colleges all over the country want our students, and I see this as a way for us to keep ... all these students that (are) such an important part of the economy of North Carolina," Barringer said.
The bill also includes a provision for UNC schools to cut their student fees by 5 percent by the 2018-19 school year and another that would create a full-ride scholarship at North Carolina Central University and North Carolina A&T State University.