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Promise Kept

Launched in 2018, North Carolina's Tuition Reduction Plan is Having an Impact at WCU and Two Sister Institutions

By Bill Studenc MPA '10

More than two years after its debut, the groundbreaking tuition reduction plan known as NC Promise is, by most accounts, a solid success that is meeting the goals of improving access to higher education by providing a financial leg-up to undergraduate students who might not otherwise be able to afford it and lowering student loan debt. Enrollment has increased significantly at Western Carolina University and two other University of North Carolina System institutions that are part of the plan. Students say the lower tuition cost is making a difference in their lives, and the amount of student debt incurred is on the decline.

"Higher education was something my parents pushed for, because they wanted a better life for me.” — Kyra Rhyne

NC Promise was launched in fall 2018 at WCU, UNC Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University, reducing the out-of-pocket cost of tuition to $500 per semester for undergraduate students from North Carolina and $2,500 for undergraduate students from other states (the program does not apply to graduate tuition).

students on the football field

At WCU, total enrollment for fall 2018 jumped to 11,639, a 5.5 percent increase over the previous year’s tally. Also that fall, the number of new first-time full-time students surpassed 2,000 for the first time in history, with a freshman class of 2,189, a 10.5 percent increase over the previous fall’s class of 1,980. The number of new undergraduate transfers soared by 40 percent, with 1,105 students transferring to WCU from other two- and four-year institutions in fall 2018.

Down east, Elizabeth City State, one of five historically black colleges and universities in the UNC System, posted its first enrollment increase in seven years in fall 2017 as campuses began to gear up for implementation of NC Promise the following year. And, when fall 2018 rolled around, total undergraduate enrollment at ECSU rose by 19 percent to 1,636 students, with a 20 percent increase in the number of first-year students and a 57 percent jump in new transfers.

At UNC Pembroke, with a tradition of providing educational opportunities to the Lumbee tribe of American Indians, the onset of NC Promise also resulted in enrollment records. Total enrollment in fall 2018 stood at 7,137 students — a 14 percent increase compared to fall 2017 — surpassing the previous record enrollment of 6,944 set in fall 2010. Total undergraduate enrollment that fall was 6,069 (up 14 percent), including 1,235 new first-year students (a 20 percent increase over the previous year’s tally) and 837 new undergraduate transfers (a 56 percent upswing).

Aerial of WCU's campus

That upward trend continued in the 2019-20 academic year, with all three NC Promise institutions experiencing growth. At ECSU, total student enrollment increased by 5.7 percent while UNCP experienced an increase of nearly 8 percent above total enrollment in 2018 — growth driven by increases in the number of new freshmen and undergraduate transfers. At WCU, total enrollment for fall 2019 topped 12,000 for the first time in university history, with 12,167 students on the rolls. That increase came despite a slight drop in the size of the entering first-year class — a drop made necessary as the institution prepared to take its two largest residence halls off line and replace them with more contemporary student housing.

But, when the Access to Affordable College Education Act was rolled out in the N.C. General Assembly in 2016, the legislation that would pave the way for NC Promise was not exactly welcomed with open arms by all North Carolinians. That included some vocal WCU alumni who expressed concern that dramatically cutting the cost of tuition at NC Promise institutions would have a negative impact on the university’s brand and reputation.

Despite those objections, NC Promise gained early support from two major allies — N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca ’80 and then-Chancellor David O. Belcher. Now retired from the General Assembly, Apodaca was a powerful legislator who served as chair of the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee and Rules Committee, and who was adamant that his alma mater be a part of the program. Apodaca found a ready partner in Belcher, who characterized NC Promise as “…a bold and innovative approach to addressing access and affordability in higher education” and who dismissed the notion that lowering the cost of tuition would damage the university’s status.

“I have heard much concern about the fear that NC Promise will make WCU look like a ‘cheap’ school and that our reputation will suffer accordingly. Hear me on this: I have no concern about this whatsoever. WCU’s reputation of high academic quality is in great shape and is increasing,” he said during his 2016 Opening Assembly address. “When we have an opportunity to make an excellent four-year university education more affordable and more accessible for more students, do assumed concerns about institutional reputation related to a lower price tag really trump what’s in the best interests of our students?”

"NC Promise is that life preserver thrown overboard, enabling us to stay afloat and get back to safety.” — Matt Opinski ’20

WCU went “all in” on NC Promise — especially after legislators clarified plans for the reimbursement of lost tuition revenue. The original legislation establishing NC Promise included $40 million to cover the difference between undergraduate students’ out-of-pocket costs for tuition at the three NC Promise campuses and the true cost of providing that education. UNC System officials successfully pushed for an additional $11 million allocation in 2017, pointing out that 
the original $40 million figure was based on out-of-date enrollment numbers, for a total of $51 million to fully fund the program. The General Assembly approved an additional $15 million in funding for NC Promise for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

So, two years in, has NC Promise proven to be a success? Based on the numbers and assuming that the adage “the numbers don’t lie” holds true, the answer seems to be a solid “yes.” But enrollment numbers and percentage increases alone do not tell the real story about the impact of NC Promise.

Matt Opinski

For former WCU Student Government Association President Matt Opinksi ’20, a first-generation college student 100 percent dependent upon financial aid, the lower cost made the difference between completing a college education or not. “I speak genuinely when I tell you it is a miracle I have the opportunity to be here,” said Opinski, a May graduate, from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, who is now enrolled in WCU’s master’s degree program in public affairs.

“It’s not always rainbows and butterflies for many of us students. The reality is that many of us battle with financial insecurity every day. Metaphorically speaking, NC Promise is that life preserver thrown overboard, enabling us to stay afloat and get back to safety. NC Promise gives emerging leaders who once slipped through the cracks the opportunity to be great leaders. Mark my words, some of the greatest leaders in our future society will come out of NC Promise, and that is something worth investing in,” he said.

Students in a classroom
students in a classroom

Kyra Rhyne, a senior majoring in integrated health sciences, is in her second year at WCU after graduating from Gaston Early College, where she earned a high school diploma and two associate degrees. Rhyne said she was attracted to WCU by its close-knit campus community and welcoming environment combined with the affordability factor presented by NC Promise.

“My mom was from the Philippines, and she met my dad through a pen-pal exchange. She never went to a community college or anything like that. My dad never got an official degree. He’s pretty much worked in a textile mill all my life. Financially we were never really stable,” said Rhyne. “Growing up, I never even expected to go to college. But higher education was something my parents pushed for, because they wanted a better life for me.”

Gabrel Pope

Gabriel Pope, a senior majoring in middle grades education, is among the more than 2,000 students who have transferred to WCU under NC Promise. A resident of Raleigh, Pope said he always planned to transfer to a UNC institution after completing his first two years at a community college; he just did not know that it would be in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

“When I found out about NC Promise, I decided to come out and take a tour, and I was honestly surprised. I thought at first that the lower tuition would mean the university would have less resources and wouldn’t be as high quality. What I didn’t understand at the time was that the state of North Carolina was going to be covering the difference,” said Pope, who transferred from Wake Technical Community College. “What I found at WCU was the quality education I wanted at a lower cost, as well as a welcoming campus that is very comfortable. I am trying to keep debt down so I can afford to continue my education.”

"What I found at WCU was the quality education I wanted at a lower cost, as well as a welcoming campus.” — Gabriel Pope

Those sentiments regarding the importance of affordability were echoed in results of a survey of the 2018 freshman class. Thirty-seven percent of all new freshmen at WCU participated in the voluntary survey, in which 83 percent of respondents ranked affordability as either the single most important factor or a large factor in deciding what college to attend. In addition, 78 percent of respondents said NC Promise was a deciding factor or played a large role in the decision-making process. Perhaps most telling, for those respondents eligible for Pell Grants (which is a significant indicator of financial need), 87 percent called affordability a deciding or large factor, while 30 percent indicated they would not have attended any college without the reduced tuition cost offered by NC Promise.

In March 2019, WCU’s then-interim chancellor, Alison Morrison-Shetlar, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, describing NC Promise as a “game-changer” that is making a college education more affordable and more accessible to a larger number of students. Part of a five-member panel of witnesses at the committee’s hearing on “The Cost of College: Student-Centered Reforms to Bring Higher Education Within Reach,” Morrison-Shetlar testified that an in-state student who graduates in four years would save approximately $12,000 through NC Promise in the cost of tuition alone.

Tuition is only a portion of the total cost of attendance at a university, which also includes mandatory fees, room and board, books and supplies, and travel and personal expenses, said Trina Orr ’94 MBA ’01, WCU director of financial aid. Following the start of the tuition plan in 2018, the total cost of attendance at WCU decreased by 13 percent, from $20,052 per year in 2017-18 to $17,455 per year in 2018-19. “NC Promise and Western Carolina University’s commitment to keep costs affordable resulted in an overall 17.4 percent decrease in loan debt incurred for 2018-19,” Orr said.

aerial of campus

While enrollment has increased at WCU under NC Promise, the university had been on a growth trajectory long before the tuition reduction program was “a gleam in a legislator’s eye,” Chancellor Kelli R. Brown said. At fall 2019 census day — the 10th day of classes at the beginning of the fall semester — WCU’s total student enrollment of 12,167 represented an increase of more than 34 percent above the fall 2008 total of 9,050, a difference of 3,117 students.

“The 2019 fall semester represented the eighth time out of the past nine years that the number of students at Western has risen. This university has a longstanding reputation for delivering a high-quality education at a reasonable cost, and NC Promise has made our cost even more affordable,” Brown said. “But Western has seen consistent enrollment growth during the past decade, which is directly attributed to the high-quality academic programs and the excellent student experiences offered here.”

That’s one reason that Phil Cauley ’83 MS ’90, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate enrollment who has worked in college admissions for more than 30 years, compares WCU’s enrollment growth to a rainy season in the Western North Carolina mountains. “A localized shower may raise the water level in one stream or creek; however, one brief rain shower doesn’t change the water level in the Tuckaseigee or French Broad rivers very much or very long. But steady, sustained, above-normal rainfall across the entire region greatly affects multiple tributaries, which, in turn, raises river levels and water tables,” Cauley said. 

Similar to the way rising streams and creeks influence a river’s water level, overall enrollment numbers can be  affected by increases in different types of students,  including first-year, transfer and distance, he said. “Successive years of increased new undergraduate enrollment swells the level of continuing undergraduate enrollment as  students matriculate toward graduation Healthy retention rates also contribute to higher levels of enrollment,” Cauley said. “I liken NC Promise to added showers of interest among high school and transfer students when WCU was already in the midst of a wet season.”  

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