State budget director discusses college affordability with WCU students, leaders

From the WCU Public Relations Office

With students – and some faculty members – still scrambling to find their classrooms on the second day of the fall semester, State Budget Director Andrew Heath paid a visit to Western Carolina University to tackle the subject of college affordability with a group of WCU students and campus leaders.

Heath joined WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher and members of his administration, five current students and one newly minted graduate for a roundtable conversation about N.C. Promise and other recent efforts to address issues of access and affordability for higher education in North Carolina. They also discussed the $2 billion Connect N.C. bond initiative, which provides $1.3 billion for repair and renovation at state universities and community colleges, including funding for a replacement for WCU’s outdated Natural Sciences building.

“We were blessed with a budget surplus this year, and we really invested those surplus dollars in some targeted areas, most notably in the realm of education,” Heath said. The state budget bill approved by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory over the summer includes three key components aimed at making college more affordable, he said. They are:

* The N.C. Promise tuition plan, which will reduce out-of-pocket tuition costs for in-state undergraduate students at WCU, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University to $500 per semester beginning in fall 2018.

* A 3 percent cap on year-to-year increases in student fees at UNC system schools.

* A four-year fixed tuition plan for all new undergraduate students in the UNC system, beginning in the fall of 2017. “When an incoming freshman starts, they will know that their tuition will not go up over their four years, should they graduate on time,” Heath said. “That is important because we want people to graduate on time and we want people to be able to plan for affordable college.”

Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher (left) and Andrew Heath, state budget director, discuss college affordability and related issues with WCU students. Photo by WCU Public Relations Office.

Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher (left) and Andrew Heath, state budget director, discuss college affordability and related issues with WCU students. Photo by WCU Public Relations Office.

Belcher reminded the group that only 19 percent of WCU students last year received scholarship assistance to attend the university, and that students took on $63 million in debt last year alone to finance their educations.

“Students who don’t have the resources face a terrible choice,” he said. “One is not to go to college, which is terrible, and the other is to take on a tremendous amount of debt. That also begins to pull back their future. Those are two not good choices, and that’s one of the things that pleases me about the opportunities that NC Promise will support.”

Belcher and Heath asked the students to share some of their thoughts about the issue of college affordability.

“Affordability means having a future, not having to pay off a bunch of debt once you get into your career,” said Katrina Ruehl, a senior chemistry major from Buncombe County. “That can have an impact on your future career and what major you go into because you may worry about going into a major that does not lead to a high-paying job, but it’s what you really want to do, it’s what you love.”

Brian Gatti, a middle grades mathematics education major from Cherokee County, told the group about traveling in Germany over the summer and talking to students there about their higher education experiences.

“Something that was not a big concern for them was the cost of college. There were no fees and, for the most part, the tuition was really low cost or free. They said that enabled them to freely choose the kind of field they wanted to pursue and to go to the college or university that they wanted to,” said Gatti. “Thinking about that back here at home, I know that, for some of my friends, cost definitely persuaded them either to go somewhere or to not go. They’d say, ‘It’s too expensive. I can’t afford it. How am I going to pay for this? I didn’t get any scholarships.’”

Nicole Hayton, a senior hospitality and tourism major from Cabarrus County, said many of her friends decided to go to community college for two years and then transfer into a four-year program. “But it’s still really stressful because even though going to community college for their first two years will help a lot, they’re still going to have debt after college,” said Hayton.

Morgan Burchfiel, a senior biology major from Buncombe County, said she originally thought about going to a larger UNC school downstate. “When I was first discussing with my parents about going to school, immediately they said, unless I get an amazing scholarship, that private schools were out,” said Burchfiel. “The opportunities on this campus are greater because it is smaller, because your professors are more willing to work with you. Western represented more affordability but also more opportunities.”

Adam Ray, a 2013 graduate of WCU who received his master’s degree in higher education student affairs in May, agreed. “I’m not too far removed from being a student, both undergrad and graduate student,” said Ray, who now works as an assistant director of admissions at WCU. “I’m from Cullowhee and I remembered thinking in high school, ‘where do I want to go.’ Western came up as my top priority because of two reasons: affordability, but also value.”

Baron Crawford, a senior from Gaston County majoring in communication and president of the Student Government Association, said he believes WCU offers a high level of affordability. “With N.C. Promise coming, it will be even greater,” said Crawford, who said he would be graduating with student loan debt. “But I look at college as an investment. You’re spending the time and the money for the bigger picture. I may have debt, but in the long run I’ll be earning more money and be able to pay that back and live a better life.”

The group also discussed the impact of approval of the Connect N.C. bond initiative in the state’s primary election in March, which will generate $2 billion in funding for repair and renovation for North Carolina infrastructure. With the voters’ endorsement of the bond issue, WCU will receive $110 million to replace its 1970s-vintage Natural Sciences building, which had become a statewide rallying symbol for the bond referendum.

“The state is moving in a direction in an economy that values science and technology and engineering and medicine. This is a great investment in Western Carolina and a great investment in North Carolina,” said Heath.

Belcher told Heath that the building probably will be constructed in two phases, with ground-breaking for the project expected in early 2018.

“We are already working with the designers to make this the best opportunity for faculty, for students, for research, for pedagogy and really to be a resource for our community as well,” said Belcher.