This Guest commentary by Kelli R. Brown, Chancellor of Western Carolina University was originally published in the Raleigh News and Observer on May 2th, 2021
There are more than 242,000 students attending the 17 institutions of the University of North Carolina System. It is one of the larger and, arguably finest systems, dedicated to public higher education, research and community uplift in the country.
More than 12,000 of those students attend Western Carolina University, a comprehensive regional institution which is part of NC Promise - the recent endeavor by the General Assembly to make college more affordable and accessible by setting per semester tuition rates of $500 for in-state and $2,500 for out-of-state students enrolled here and at UNC Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University.
NC Promise is one of many commitments made by the state legislature to higher education and the UNC System. At WCU alone, there has been $33 million to fund replacement of a steam plant, the university’s nearly century old source for heating and hot water. Another $110 million, made possible through the $2 billion Connect NC bond referendum, is going to construct our new, modern Apodaca Science Building.
WCU is witnessing new residence halls and parking facilities going up, and renovations at all corners of campus. Construction and contracted work are a wellspring for the local economy, with a multiplier effect upon area businesses, from restaurants to equipment suppliers and beyond.
You don’t have to be a college student, staff or faculty member to reap the benefits provided by a public university. WCU has an annual economic impact of more than $500 million in the 10 surrounding counties in Western North Carolina. Every taxpayer dollar invested to support operations at WCU is delivering a return of $5.40 in benefits back to the state.
There are needs beyond capital improvement, however, that WCU and other UNC institutions continue to struggle with, including a salary increase for faculty and staff, that also will have a ripple effect within our community. The ability to attract and retain high quality faculty and staff is of critical importance. It strengthens the WCU mission, to be sure, and it strengthens the region with the contributions that can only come from people who call this home. We trust the General Assembly to make those investments, should revenues be available.
Success in public higher education requires public support and that includes our duly elected representatives. It is an ongoing partnership that pays dividends when all involved work for the greater good.
That support brought us to where we are today. As other states’ public and private universities struggle because of shifts brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession, the UNC System is holding steady and, in some cases, seeing increased interest. WCU, for instance, had enrollment gains this past fall among undergraduates and for students seeking master’s degrees.
So, before Western Carolina University continues to press its case for a myriad of needs, it is important that we take a moment to acknowledge the long-standing support of our state legislative body for the work we do on behalf of all North Carolinians. And we offer our special appreciation for their efforts working with us in the shared responsibility of higher education, research and workforce preparation, and creating an enviable quality of life in our state.