Could WCU’s tuition reduction prove enrollment boon for SCC?

This story was written by Tanner Hall, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

SCC President Don Tomas. Photo courtesy of The Sylva Herald.

Administrators at Southwestern Community College say that upcoming tuition cuts at Western Carolina University might help – not hurt – enrollment at their smaller school.

N.C. Promise, designed to make college more affordable, beginning in August 2018 lowers the per-semester tuition cost for in-state students to $500 at WCU and two other state institutions – the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University. The rate for out-of-state students drops to $2,500.

This means tuition at WCU will cost less than at SCC.

The catch, SCC President Don Tomas said, is that WCU students face more than $1,500 in fees. Community college students don’t, however. Under N.C. Promise, the total cost for a 12-credit-hour semester at SCC will be less than half than at WCU, he said, not including housing fees paid by university students living on campus.

Tomas said he doesn’t expect enrollment at SCC to decline. “I’d almost be willing to say there could be a positive effect,” he said.

Many students who want to come to Western North Carolina, but who aren’t able to get into WCU, use SCC as a stepping stone, Tomas said.

In fall 2015, 75 percent of SCC graduates who went on to a four-year university did so at WCU. Professors often compliment the maturity level of students who have transferred from SCC, Tomas said.

Those students typically perform better and graduate with higher grade-point averages than students who started at the university, he said.

SCC shares 17 programs with WCU. More affordable education will make it easier for community college students in those fields to make the switch, Tomas said.

“You can start here and finish there while saving money,” Tomas said.

With slashed tuition at WCU, students getting a four-year degree can save $3,200 by going to SCC for the first two years, he said.

WCU leaders, meanwhile, are grappling with how to handle an incoming spike in applications while remaining faithful to the region’s college hopefuls.

“The reality is that the university doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate hundreds or thousands of new students all at once,” said Phil Cauley, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate enrollment. “We don’t want enrollment growth to occur so rapidly that it could potentially affect our tradition of small class sizes and a lower student-to-instructor ratio, which have been a hallmark of a WCU education.”

N.C. Promise could create a more competitive admission process, especially for the entering first-year class, Cauley said.

WCU does not set minimum requirements for what percentage of incoming students must be from WNC. Officials will use “application deadlines and other enrollment activities to shape and manage the size of entering cohorts,” Cauley said.

“WCU values the collaborations and shared commitment of sister academic institutions, such as SCC, to make higher education accessible and affordable for citizens of the region,” he said. “SCC may benefit from increased selectivity at WCU, and enrollment gains at SCC could increase the transfer enrollment cohort at WCU.

“Both institutions may gain, from an enrollment perspective, as a result of N.C. Promise,” Cauley said.

While WCU continues to see record enrollment numbers, SCC officials say that enrollment at the community college has remained steady over the past five years.