Undergraduates will pay an additional $340 in tuition and mandatory fees to attend WCU next year. This means that in-state and out-of-state students will shell out $3,669 and $13,266 next year, respectively, for their education — numbers that do not include housing or meal plans.
The increase is part of a five-year plan that the Board of Trustees agreed to last year, in which it steadily raises tuition by at least a couple hundred dollars each year. This kept students from being forced to absorb a more than $1,000 increase in tuition all at once.
By the 2016-17 school year, the cost of attending WCU will have risen by $1,360, not including increases in fees, housing and dining — which altogether add thousands to higher education’s price tag.
Student trustee Alecia Page spoke fervently against the increase in tuition and fees, relaying to her fellow trustees the financial struggles students already face.
“They will see (the tuition increase) as a failure on (the Student Government Association’s) behalf,” said Page, who heads the association.
Some students are already working 40 to 60 hours a week to make ends meet, and some that come from rural, low-income backgrounds already have trouble affording college tuition, Page said.
After several years of raising tuition, despite student opposition, Page said students have begun to feel apathetic about protesting the increases.
“If it’s not going to change, then why am I going to put in the effort,” Page said, recalling the words of her fellow students. “As a student leader, that is the worst thing you can hear.”
Page reminded the trustees that they had made it to the prosperous side of life. In some way all have been successful. Page explained that students, strapped with bills and debt, have a difficult time seeing life beyond that.
“Our students haven’t seen that side yet,” Page said. “From their side, it’s still ‘There is only so much we can pay.’”
Page talked at length to the trustees. However, in the end, she and Trustee Tommeye Saunooke were the only two of the board’s 13 members to vote against the increase. Saunooke declined to comment for this story.
“We may not agree, but we listen,” said Joan MacNeill, chair of the board. “I hope you will take that message back to the students.”
The trustees agreed that they did not want to increase tuition and fees, but it had to be done.
Trustee Stephen Metcalf noted that the university has raised tuition each of his last eight years on the board.
“I am not happy about that. I don’t feel real good about that at all,” Metcalf said.
He added that in addition to raising the price of admission, WCU leaders must do all that they can to convince the state to restore some of its education funding, or at the very least stop cutting its budget.
“We have to make our case so much stronger with the North Carolina General Assembly,” Metcalf said. “There comes a point in time when you can only do so much cutting.”
Follow the money trail
Each year, WCU submits a generic list of items that the tuition increase will fund — 20 percent for need-based aid, 5 percent to merit-based scholarships, 10 percent to enhance academic technology, 20 percent for faculty merit pay, 15 percent to increase the number of liberal arts courses, 5 percent for graduate student stipends, 20 percent to hire more faculty and 5 percent for the library.
But, to gain students’ trust and understanding, Page said, the university must be more specific with what it spends the money on. Let students know exactly how many new positions their tuition pays for, Page said. And how many new class sections are offered.
Although WCU does not have detailed information about how next year’s money will be divvied up, administrators stated that they could go ahead and let students know where this year’s extra $2.5 million went.
Tuition for this academic year was up $399 compared the previous year, equaling $2.5 million in new revenue.
“I think your requests are reasonable,” Belcher said. “I think we can do a better communications job on our campus.”
WCU is by no means the only university raising its tuition and fee rates. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a college or university that will not cost more next year than it does currently, given the budget cuts that every level of education has faced during the last several years.
If approved by the state, the tuition increase for next year will net an additional $2.3 million in revenue for WCU — a Band-Aid amount when compared to the budget cuts it has faced.
During the last four years, WCU saw $32.7 million cut out of its budget. The amount accounts for both permanent cuts in funding and reversions back to the state.
“Tuition increases have been replacing some of the state dollars, but it doesn’t even come close to replacing all of the state dollars we’ve lost,” said Provost Angela Brenton.
In North Carolina, there is no rule dictating how much a college or university can charge or how much tuition can increase each year. Some states like Ohio capped tuition, only allowing schools to increase their rates by a certain percentage each year during the recession.
However, raising tuition is a double-edged sword. If a university becomes too costly, it will have trouble attracting and keeping students.
“At what point, do you question whether it’s worth it as a student?” Page said. “That is when I get scared. That’s our retention. That is our funding.”
When compared to a list of peer institutions across the country, WCU has one of the lowest tuition and fee rates, ranking number 18 out of 19. And, university leaders projected that WCU will remain among the least costly, even four years from now when its tuition has risen more than $1,000.
The trustees asked Page how the price of an institution factored into student’s decisions. One trustee drew a parallel to gas prices, saying he always looks for the cheapest rate before filling up his tank. Reason would suggest that students also search for the best deal regarding education, he said.
But, Page countered that logic, saying that WCU may actually be more expensive if a prospective student garners scholarships from another university, defraying the cost.
“They are going to look for the best bang for their buck,” Page said.
Page said that WCU does not do a good enough job providing aid to students, offering less than $700,000 in merit-based scholarships this year. WCU may be losing high-achieving students to other colleges or universities because of a lack of scholarships, Page said, encouraging administrators to make a greater push for scholarship funding.
“Put up billboards like you do for athletics; sell T-shirts,” Page said.
University leaders agreed that WCU must do more.
“We are scholarship poor at this institution. We are amazingly scholarship poor,” said Chancellor David Belcher. “We are exceedingly behind many of the people we compare ourselves to.”
Belcher, who is in his second year as chancellor, cited his inauguration address in April in which he listed creating endowed scholarships as his number one philanthropic priority. The chancellor took the opportunity to reaffirm his commitment but said building endowed scholarships from scratch takes time.
Tuition and fee rates
The following numbers illustrate the rise in tuition and fee costs at Western Carolina University from this academic year to the next.
• In-state undergraduate $6,139 $6,479
• In-state graduate $6,322 $6,694
• Out-of-state undergraduate $15,736 $16,076
• Out-of-state graduate $15,907 $16,280