Western Carolina University must leverage the advantages offered by the NC Promise tuition plan, a favorable budgetary picture and a rising academic reputation to grow its enrollment by 300 students annually in order to help the University of North Carolina system meet its goal of increasing the number of college-educated North Carolinians.
Steady enrollment growth to help improve the economic condition of the state and its residents was among the recurring themes delivered by WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher in his annual Opening Assembly address Wednesday (Aug. 16) to kick off the new academic year.
“We have spent a lot of time at Western Carolina University debating and worrying about enrollment growth. These have been helpful conversations. Today, though, let me be crystal clear: the time for talk is over,” Belcher said. “We will grow every single year both in total headcount at a rate of roughly 300 students per year and in the mix of total student semester credit hours necessary to ensure student success and sustain a healthy funding environment.”
Belcher urged the faculty and staff in attendance to work to solve the inevitable challenges that come with enrollment growth, calling for “solution-focused, not problem-focused, conversations.”
“This must be a year of proactively harnessing the tools and resources we have been given – be it NC Promise, enrollment growth funding, new strategic initiatives and relationships at the system and state levels – we must and will marshal all of these gifts and extend them to include a broader swath of promising students,” he said. “Who are we to limit their abilities, their successes and their futures?”
Beginning next fall, undergraduate students from North Carolina will see their out-of-pocket tuition expenses reduced to $500 per semester at WCU and two other UNC institutions through the NC Promise program.
“WCU welcomes this bold, innovative investment in public higher education in North Carolina,” Belcher said. “Western will leverage this tool, both to extend the benefits of a WCU education to students for whom cost is a barrier to college access and to reduce the amount that students must borrow to achieve their dreams of completing a four-year degree.”
Aside from the expected impact of NC Promise on enrollment at WCU, the university finds itself on solid financial footing, thanks to last year’s record enrollment along with an anticipated increase again this year, and to a state budget plan that included significant support for public higher education, he said.
“Overall, this year’s state budget is the best for the UNC system in almost 10 years. While there are areas such as employee compensation that need additional attention, I am grateful to our legislators for recognizing the needs of the UNC system and Western Carolina University,” Belcher said.
Among the state budget highlights are repair and renovation funding; increased support for legislatively mandated lab schools, including WCU’s Catamount School, which is opening Tuesday, Aug. 22; and additional dollars to fully fund the NC Promise program based on projected enrollment for both in-state and out-of-state students.
“On the NC Promise agenda, I’m very happy to report that the additional $11 million needed to fully fund the program at the level consistent with projected enrollment for both in-state and out-of-state students was included in the final budget. This will ensure that WCU and the other participating campuses are made financially whole in the implementation of NC Promise in fall 2018,” Belcher said.
One of the biggest successes of the legislative session, he said, was the inclusion of $750,000 for design of a replacement for WCU’s aging steam plant, housed in a structure dating back to the 1920s. The steam plant provides heat and hot water for much of the campus.
Belcher provided an update on the university’s allocation of one-time and recurring funds during the previous fiscal year, including the addition of new faculty positions in computer science, finance, French, liberal studies, nursing, parks and recreation management, and social work; the hiring of four new safety officers; renovations in the Center for Career and Professional Development, the Old Student Union, classrooms and laboratories across campus, and Belk, Forsyth and H.F. Robinson buildings; new equipment for chemistry and nursing labs; and marketing campaigns designed to help increase enrollment.
Belcher also shared with the audience the university’s budget priorities for the year ahead. “Because of our strong fiscal position coming into this year, we will be able to make significant, strategic investments at a level we’ve not been able to do for several years,” he said. “We will hire additional faculty and staff positions. We have an opportunity to move the needle with a number of strategic hires in critical academic and administrative units, units for whom an investment in human capital will have the best ROI in promoting or supporting enrollment growth.”
The university also will allocate funding for salaries to address faculty and staff retention issues; make much-needed upgrades to campus facilities and technology; and decrease the number of recurring initiatives that are funded out of year-end, one-time money, he said.
Belcher thanked members of WCU’s faculty and staff for the role they played in helping shape the new UNC system strategic plan, titled “Higher Expectations,” ensuring that WCU’s priorities are reflected in – and mesh well with – the document, which includes performance metrics, targets and areas of distinction that each campus will be expected to meet. In conjunction with the recently unveiled system plan, Belcher characterized revision of WCU’s strategic plan, “2020 Vision,” as one of the upcoming year’s most critical priorities and a document that must be “reflective of WCU’s soaring reputation for excellence.”
“As many of you know, our ‘2020 Vision’ has served us well – really well. In fact, it is still my chapter and verse, and I am extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished under its banner,” he said. “But the world has changed over the past six years, and we must change with it. New system initiatives, new state and federal legislation, new funding environments, new population trends – all of these, and more, require us to think differently about our future.”
Turning his attention to racial and political tensions that have ignited on campuses across the nation, including at WCU last year, Belcher acknowledged the work of a university task force that reviewed institutional activities and procedures to ensure that WCU remains “a campus that values and respects diversity, inclusion and the free and open interchange of ideas.”
Institutions of higher education have an important role to fulfill in addressing the major issues facing the nation today, including the division of members of society into “haves” and “have-nots,” he said.
“Yes, higher education and WCU are not the panacea for all of the challenges associated with economic mobility. But we can and should be among the most integral players in leveling the disparities, because education itself – our business – represents one of, if not the, most significant solution our society has in hand,” he said.
Belcher also took time to address what he frequently has called “the elephant in the room” – his health, after his recent announcement that surgery and a first round of treatment for a brain tumor diagnosed last year were not as successful as hoped. He is now undergoing a new treatment regimen at Duke University Hospital.
“I want you to hear this, and it is no spin: I feel fine. I am present. And I am energized in my fight against this disease. I am in charge. I am working nearly full-time. And I am absolutely committed as your chancellor to ensure that Western Carolina University continues the strong, positive and forward momentum of recent years,” he said. “In fact, I expect and require it, not just from myself, but from each of you.”