Wednesday, December 27, 2017

North Carolina makes a promise to rural public universities.

As my regular readers will know, I am a huge proponent of increasing access to higher education for students in rural communities and supporting institutions already located there. Part of addressing the skills mismatch in rural communities involves ensuring that rural citizens can attend college and that rural areas already home to colleges can attract and retain the talent needed to grow their local economy. In July, I wrote about how this concept could apply to law schools and the legal profession.

Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation that, starting in Fall 2018, would lower tuition at three rural public universities in North Carolina: Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University to $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out of state students. What makes this notable for me is that all three are also located in rural, impoverished parts of the state and in counties with poverty rates of 19.2%, 31.6%, and 22% respectively. All three also serve economically vulnerable populations:  ECSU has historically served African American students, WCU serves students from Appalachia, and UNCP was founded by the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina in order to help provide for the education of Native students in the segregated South.

On its face, this legislation seems like a net positive, it enhances college affordability while helping attract people to some of the poorest areas of the state (or in UNCP's case, one of the poorest in the country). It serves the dual purpose of helping local students afford college while also providing a price point that may bring people from out of state who might remain after college and help grow the local economy. If this program were successful, it would be an extreme net positive for all of the communities involved. Like all pieces of legislation however, this one warrants a closer bit of scrutiny.

My major question is funding and how the program's sustainability will be ensured going forward. Some of the initial concerns about the legislation centered on the loss of revenue by the schools that participated in the program and how that would be recouped. UNCP Chancellor Robin Cummings estimated that the school could lose as much as $10-$15 million per year in tuition revenue under this bill. Though not addressed initially, it was addressed in the final version of the bill , which allowed for the appropriation of funding, up to $40,000,000 total for all three campuses, to cover any deficit between the statutory tuition and the actual tuition that the school has to set to meet their expenses. A good explanation of how that actually looks can be seen in this article that discusses ECSU's tuition "increase." Of course, that authorization comes with a major caveat as any increases in funding would have to be approved by the "Director of the Budget." There is a provision however that allows the UNC system (the umbrella body that governs all public universities in the state) to take "appropriate action" should any of the three schools find themselves at the point of insolvency.

Assuming that funding remains in place and is adequate to meet the needs of the schools, the program  should be a positive. It is far too early to speculate on how it will play out and whether or not the legislature will honor their commitment to ensure that the program is fully funded. However, the affected schools and municipalities are already preparing for the possible increases in enrollment that will result from the lower tuition rates. The Town of Pembroke recently rezoned land in order to allow for new student housing to be built and WCU is looking for public private partnerships that would allow them to expand their student housing. Both of the linked articles also show the potency of a strong rural university, WCU is also looking for proposals to help expand their power grid in order to facilitate the expansion of broadband internet to surrounding communities while Pembroke was honored as "Small Town of the Year" by the North Carolina Rural Center, in part because of its relationship with UNC Pembroke.

It is too soon to tell how this will turn out. I think that, if the promises (no pun intended) are delivered, this could be a boon for these communities and provide an infusion of talent and resources that will lead to future growth. These schools however are now more reliant on the state legislature than other public universities in the state and may ultimately end up in a precarious situation if the state fails to authorize enough funding to meet the needs of the institutions. Funding for the program looks to be secure, for now however, given the optimistic outlook that the leaders of the three schools (particularly Chancellor Cummings, who had previously said that he would not agree to anything that would decrease funding for UNCP) have provided. There are numerous "what if?" scenarios that you could play out regarding the funding piece, and that is cause for concern. However, I will reserve my concern for now.

As I said back in July, exposure to rural spaces can lead to students deciding to remain there and I think that a $500 per semester price point will almost certainly pull students into rural spaces who may not have otherwise gone there. I am excited to see how this program ultimately turns out and whether and how it drives regional economic development. Given the development already happening, it looks promising. As someone who grew up 15 minutes from UNC Pembroke, I will be watching closely.

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