The rising cost of college has been a subject of debate and handwringing in America for decades. In a 1927 article in Time magazine, John D. Rockefeller Jr. was among the first to suggest the concept of student loans for those who couldn’t afford college. Nearly a century later, Americans owe more than $1.48 trillion in student loan debt, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Consumer Credit Panel. In 2015, the average monthly student loan payment for those in the 20- to 30-year-old range was $351, said Trina Orr ’94 MBA ’01, Western Carolina University’s director of financial aid. “That’s $351 that newly minted graduates may not be able to put back into local economies,” Orr said.

Increasing educational access and reducing student debt to help fuel local economies was largely the motivation behind a bill passed by the General Assembly in 2016 establishing the NC Promise tuition plan, said Meredith Whitfield, WCU’s director of external affairs. This program will dramatically reduce tuition at three University of North Carolina System campuses, including WCU, beginning this fall. The new sticker price will be $500 per semester for in-state tuition and $2,500 per semester for out-of-state students. That applies to all undergraduate students attending WCU, UNC Pembroke or Elizabeth City State University. Graduate tuition will not change.

Parents of current or future students should note that those amounts don’t include mandatory fees for residential students or the cost of housing and meals. Details on total costs is available at ncpromise.wcu.edu.

As WCU prepares to implement NC Promise, campus officials have heard from several alumni with three consistent questions: “How can the university maintain quality with less tuition revenue, how will WCU handle the flood of students this may generate, and how can I ensure that my student can take advantage of this program?”

The answer to the first question is simple: the state of North Carolina is fully supplementing the reduction in tuition, meaning that WCU will not see an overall budget reduction, Whitfield said. “In other words, it costs less, and students get the same quality of education,” she said.

As for a potential surge in enrollment, the answer is more complicated. As of this writing, freshman applications for fall 2018 were up more than 11 percent over applications at the same point in time for fall 2017. That said, at the same point in time in 2017, applications were up more than 9 percent over 2016. While NC Promise may be having some impact, it is not likely to be the only factor driving increased applications, said Mike Langford, director of undergraduate admissions.

“More importantly, applications do not equal enrollment. WCU will not accept all applicants. In recent years, WCU’s acceptance rate has dropped below 40 percent,” he said. “Plus, about one in four students gets accepted to six or more schools. In 2017, just under 30 percent of accepted students actually enrolled at WCU.”

Each year, WCU anticipates its yield rate – the percentage of students going from accepted to enrolled – to remain relatively flat or increase slightly. The university then accepts a particular volume of students that will result in steady, sustainable growth. NC Promise introduces a level of mystery into the enrollment funnel, Langford said. “Will a larger percentage of accepted students decide to enroll at WCU because of NC Promise? We essentially won’t know until May 1 – National College Decision Day,” he said.

To ensure the university is as prepared as possible for a potential increase in yield, WCU plans to stop accepting applications for traditional freshman admission Feb 1. It also is investing in accepted student surveys and pushing for early deposits, all to ensure the necessary housing and course availability for WCU’s 2018 entering class.

Regarding question No. 3, those hoping to take advantage of NC Promise should know that competition for acceptance to WCU may increase in the years to come, Langford said. “We take a holistic approach to application review, placing particular weight on GPA and class rank as well as extracurricular activities, and interest and commitment to WCU,” he said. “Apply early, as applications are reviewed and decisions are made weekly beginning in September.” WCU’s application opens in early August for the following fall.