Republican lawmakers add higher education win over criticism as ‘racist’



(The Center Square) – About seven years after critics of the NC Promise program labeled the effort racist and predicted doom for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, an annual report shows the opposite.

“The NC Promise program has been a success on multiple fronts,” according to a 2023-24 annual report recently presented to the UNC Board of Governors’ Budget and Finance Committee. “College affordability has increased, contributing to a significant decrease in undergraduate debt at graduation at all NC Promise institutions.”

The report, presented by UNC System Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Haygood, shows over 20,000 students are enrolled through NC Promise at four schools, including one that initially rejected the program.

Students at two participating HBCUs, in particular, have benefitted the most, with undergraduate enrollment up 48% at Elizabeth City State University since 2017, and a 10% enrollment increase at Fayetteville State University since 2022. At UNC Pembroke undergraduate enrollment has increased 2%, while the figure is 7% at Western Carolina University since 2017.

“Enrollment at three of the four NC Promise institutions remains above enrollment prior to the implementation of the NC Promise program, and out-of-state enrollment has increased at all four institutions,” the report reads. “UNCP and WCU enrolled their largest classes ever in the fall of 2018, and ECSU reversed a decreasing enrollment trend.”

NC Promise was designed by the General Assembly in 2016 to improve affordability and access to UNC System schools by offering state-subsidized tuition. That effort followed others that capped fees and tuition at UNC System schools for four years.

The program met instant resistance from the NAACP, mainstream media and others that described the legislation as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing designed to bankrupt” participating schools. A petition that amassed 8,425 signatures predicted the $500 per semester rate for in-state students would render the schools “unsustainable as four-year institutions and sets up their transformation into community colleges.”

Rev. William Barber, the former leader of the state NAACP, made similar allegations of “trickery” from Republicans trying to “drain and bankrupt” the schools.

While similar programs in other states offered targeted assistance to low-income students, or those from struggling school systems, NC Promise stood out as a hand up for everyone, including out-of-state students who pay only $2,500 per semester.

Before the program launched in the 2018-19 school year, two HBCUs in the initial legislation were removed, though Fayetteville State University eventually reconsidered and joined in 2022.

In the years since, lawmakers have devoted significant funding for the program, growing the tuition “buy down” from the state to offset the lower tuition rates from $40 million the first year to $82.5 million in recurring funds in the 2023-24 fiscal year.

The new biennial budget builds on those investments with $4 million appropriated for college completion assistance to help students at eight UNC System schools over the next two years.

The overall impact noted in the annual report stands in stark contrast to what students and families are experiencing elsewhere.

Recent research shows the average tuition and fees at public schools rose 2% over the last year, contributing to a 2% decline in in-state students and a 3% decline for out-of-state students. Student loan debt has ballooned from about $1.5 trillion in 2018 to nearly $1.8 trillion in the second quarter of 2023, according to Federal Reserve data.



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