The Western Carolina University Board of Trustees agreed to proceed with the second phase of a five-year effort approved last December that would help the university maintain a high level of academic quality while it begins to slowly catch up to tuition rates at public peer institutions.
The plan, approved by the board during its regular quarterly meeting Friday, Dec. 7, would mean an increase of $340 (or 5.54 percent) for the 2013-14 academic year in tuition and mandatory fees for undergraduate students who are residents of North Carolina.
The proposed schedule of tuition and fees must be approved by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and the North Carolina General Assembly.
The increases are necessary to protect the quality of education at a time of decreasing state allocations, Robert Edwards, vice chancellor for administration and finance, told the board. WCU has absorbed more than $32 million in state funding cuts since 2008, Edwards said.
The proposal includes a tuition increase of $272 for N.C. undergraduate students for the next academic year. Twenty percent of the proposed tuition increase would go to need-based financial aid, with 5 percent designated for merit-based financial aid. The remaining amount would be allocated to graduate assistantship funding (5 percent); faculty merit salary increases (20 percent); increasing capacity of liberal arts courses (15 percent); adding faculty to high-demand programs (20 percent), enhancing academic technology (10 percent); and library collection enhancement (5 percent).
In addition, the board approved increases totaling $68 per year in three mandatory fees charged by the university – an increase of $34 per year in the education and technology fee, $18 in the health service fee and $16 in the transportation fee. All other mandatory fees (athletics, student activity, book rental, document and various debt service fees) would remain unchanged under the proposal.
The trustees’ vote on the issue came after more than two hours of debate during an afternoon of open discussion and committee meetings Thursday, Dec. 6, and additional conversation during the regular board meeting.
Alecia Page, SGA president and a voting ex officio member of the board, asked her fellow trustees to keep in mind the impact of higher costs on students and their parents. “Students do not know what it’s like to be on this side of the table and to look at the numbers and say, ‘this is all that we can do,’” said Page. “They are on a different side of the table saying, ‘this is all that we can afford.’”
Page also urged the university to focus attention on increasing the amount of scholarship assistance awarded to students to help offset the increasing costs, especially to keep top students from leaving WCU for other institutions offering more merit-based financial assistance.
Chancellor David Belcher pledged that he was remaining steadfast to a commitment made during his installation address that raising funds for endowed scholarships is now the university’s top philanthropic priority.
Joan MacNeill, chair of the trustees, reminded the board that the proposed tuition increase for 2013-14 is part of a graduated “catch-up” plan approved last year at WCU and by the UNC Board of Governors.
The WCU board agreed last year to spread out the “catch-up” period from four years to five at the recommendation of T.J. Eaves, the 2011-12 SGA president. “It was not an easy decision last year,” said board member Grace Battle. “We changed our mind probably three times. T.J. came in with a good proposal, and we listened to what he had to say. We also looked at the impact on academics, and we really struggled with the decision.”
Trustees said they struggled with the decision again this year. “Some folks are economically strapped, and I don’t know how some of them are able to do what they do in order to get here,” said board member Ed Broadwell.
Trustee Pat Kaemmerling said the board must balance the cost of a WCU education against its quality. “I don’t want people to come to Western because we are the cheapest,” Kaemmerling said. “I want people to come to Western because it’s affordable, yes, but also because we are very, very good.”
The board also approved increases averaging 3.98 percent for room rates for residence halls and 4.36 percent for meal plans. With the proposed changes approved by the trustees, WCU’s average total cost of attendance in 2013-14, including room and board, would be $12,349 per year for a typical N.C. undergraduate.