The N.C. Promise Tuition Plan is probably the most important and impactful thing that Western Carolina University has faced in its long history. Intended to reduce the cost of attending college so that it is more accessible, the plan includes capping future fee increases at 3 percent annually and, most notably, reducing tuition to $500 per semester for in-state students (and $2,500 per semester for out-of-state students), with the general fund of the state making up the difference so that the overall operating budget of the university is not diminished. This is an attention-getting, complicated, multifaceted plan that will be challenging to implement, with both anticipated risks as well as unanticipated consequences.
To be sure, there will be implementation challenges. How this plan interacts with vendor contracts, financial aid policies and part-time students has yet to be specified. These will be complicated issues that primarily affect the professional staff in our Registrar’s Office, Controller’s Office and Information Technology area. However, the very smart and dedicated people in these units already deal with a complicated and constantly changing environment, and I personally have full confidence in their ability to manage these new problems effectively. Broader concerns have been expressed with regard to the sustainability of budgetary support in future years and the reputation of the university.
Offsetting these risks and challenges is the stunning benefit that could be achieved on behalf of the citizens of our region and state. Many editorialists have referred to the original promise of the North Carolina Constitution, which establishes that higher education should be available to the general population as close to free as possible, noting that the N.C. Promise plan is consistent with that original goal. Why did our founders think that accessible higher education is so important that it should be mandated in the state constitution?
American social and political structure has as its core two essential principles: freedom and equality. All are created equal and all are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, if a person has no job and has no ability to obtain a job that allows them to support a family and establish a reasonable standard of living, then freedom and equality are just meaningless words on paper. They aren’t really achievable. In a modern society and rapidly changing world, higher education provides the essential pathway for the people to succeed and flourish, and to actually become free and equal.
When Margaret Spellings became president of the University of North Carolina system last March, one of her first public statements included the observation that North Carolina has always done a good job educating the “elites,” but it was essential that we also provide an accessible, affordable, excellent higher education for the general population. Schools like WCU are the “people’s universities,” with access as a key component of their mission, and we thus serve as the gateway to freedom and equality for a large proportion of the population. The N.C. Promise plan can have a very powerful effect of lowering the threshold of that gateway for many students and families whose ability to afford college is right on the margin.
One predicted impact to WCU is a significant increase in serious applications (by serious, I mean students who for sure want to come here if accepted). We can grow some, but not infinitely, so we will almost inevitably become more selective in our admissions. Some will argue for steadily increasing the academic standing of the student body through selective (exclusive) admissions, whereas others will argue for continuing to serve our historic mission of access to all qualified and motivated students in our region. I look forward to these debates and discussions as we strive to achieve the right balance; I’m sure we can do it. This is a great problem to have, one that arises from an increasing demand for the education that WCU offers. As with most serious issues in life, there are costs and benefits to consider, but in this case it certainly seems to me that the challenges and potential risks entailed by the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan are far outweighed by the potential benefits to the people we serve.
David M. McCord is a professor in the Department of Psychology and immediate past chair of the Faculty Senate at Western Carolina University.