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The Debate Over Making NC Colleges More Affordable

Higher Education Works Foundation
House Speaker Tim Moore (right), UNC System President Margaret Spellings (center), and Acting NC Community College President Jennfer Haygood (left) discuss affordability and access in higher education.

How to make higher education more accessible and affordable makes for some heated debate. UNC President Margaret Spellings and her counterpart in the community college system joined the House Speaker in Charlotte last week to discuss that. There was a lot of agreement on stage, but among North Carolina policy makers the topic has come with some tension. 

RUMSEY: That debate is playing out on the UNC system board, right? 

WORF: Indeed, it is. The board of governors last month adopted a resolution that the board will “endeavor to reduce tuition and fees at all UNC system schools.” That passed easily, but the discussion beforehand was tense. Board member Leo Daughtry noted the UNC system already has low tuition compared to other states – in fact, 9th lowest as tracked by The College Board. 

DAUGHTRY: I don’t want to see us to move the balancing act that we have to carry on because if we decrease tuition and fees, then, I believe, we will ultimately have to increase the need for more funds from the General Assembly.

WORF: That's in order to replace the loss in tuition dollars. Now, the board’s strategic plan, approved last year, doesn’t mention cuts, but limiting the growth in tuition to the increase in median income. Spellings calls that “a pretty fair proposition.” But several new members, such as Tom Fetzer, former mayor of Raleigh, pushed for this resolution.   

FETZER: I sense the board should send a strong signal to our member institutions that you need to find some way to save money, so our North Carolina families can save money.

WORF: He thinks the system can cut tuition without getting more from state lawmakers. And he noted how much tuition fees had risen in recent years – 19 percent over 5 years.   

RUMSEY: Now, three UNC schools will be reducing tuition to $500 per semester next year. 

WORF: That’s right – Western Carolina, UNC Pembroke, and Elizabeth City State University. State legislators wrote that into law and, in this case, decided to offset the loss in tuition by setting aside $51 million to these schools. In Charlotte last week, House Speaker Tim Moore called it a great example the state can build on. 

MOORE: We’re wanting to see if it’s actually producing the results that we believe it will, and that we believe it has, of allowing students to come in and afford it who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it, who are actually completing their degree, graduating, not going into debt as much. 

WORF: But the question is..let’s say you cut tuition at other schools, would the general assembly compensate that and, if not, how do you keep the same quality without the money. In Charlotte, Spellings talked a lot about financial aid – specifically targeting the neediest students with small grants that may make the difference between graduating and dropping out.     

RUMSEY: Now, what about the state’s community college system as far as affordability?

WORF: Tuition and fees for North Carolina’s community college system were among the lowest in the country last year. The system’s acting president Jennifer Haygood said the real challenge is meeting students where they are – things like more online classes, and granting credit based on competency, not seat time. So that by testing out of certain course topics, you can possibly earn your degree faster.

HAYGOOD: We’ve got to figure out how to have structured learning opportunities that are more flexible and we’ve got to figure this out because, quite honestly, that’s why propriety schools and the for-profit sector has kind of eaten our lunch and we’ve got to change that.

WORF: Haygood noted Central Piedmont Community College is developing the system’s first competency-based IT degree. 

RUMSEY: What else stood out to you from last week’s discussion?

WORF: There was a question about what contributes to the growing skepticism of higher education. And Spellings said she believes part of that is society has sold this belief that higher education is a pathway and then priced people out of it. She also mentioned intense political debates playing out on campus.   

SPELLINGS: And so when speakers go to college campuses and are spit at and shouted out and beaten up, that makes moms and dads in Kings Mountain say, “What the heck? I think they often see maybe not a reflection of their own values, beliefs, and orthodoxy reflected in American higher education.

WORF: She went on to say civic discourse has gone missing a bit in higher education, especially at flagship universities and the country’s elite institutions.

RUMSEY: And, finally, a contentious subject that I understand came up last week, was how public education should handle DACA students.

WORF: Yes, and it wasn’t all that contentious on stage. Spellings said she had long been outspoken on giving in-state tuition to dreamers and is part of a coalition urging Congress to come up with a plan and settle the uncertainty.  She said after the state has invested in them in their k-12 years, it’s smart to continue to invest in them through higher education. Moore simply said he wishes the federal government would fix the issue of DACA one way or another. Because, he said, it’s frustrating as state policy makers because they have to comply with those federal laws. 

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.