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Monday, May 23, 2016

Monday, May 23, 2016

North Carolina Republicans Take Aim at State's Historically Black and Native American Colleges (UPDATED 6/7/16)

Although overshadowed by North Carolina's recent HB2 (forbidding transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their choice), the state's Republican majority has proposed a bill that could seriously undermine the colleges and universities that have traditionally served North Carolina's minority population.  Despite its proclaimed aim to address the problem of student debt, SB873 likely will exacerbate the state's inadequate funding of Higher Education in general (a reduction of over 23% in State funding between 2008-2015) and potentially devastate the finances of four institutions that historically focus on African-American and Native American students. It would also encourage them to increase the number of their out of state students and overturn decisions made by students about projects they wish to support with their fees.

Although notable for its explicit emphasis on institutions that serve primarily minority populations within the state, the North Carolina proposals are simply the latest in a series of legislative interventions into the decision making of public universities.  These interventions combine a reduction of state funding with increasing micro-management in the name of the interests of students.  As with recent cuts in Wisconsin and Illinois, North Carolina's Republican legislative majority has assumed a populist mantle while pursuing policies that would have their greatest negative effects on those colleges and universities that have the fewest resources and that serve the poor and people of color.

SB873 has several key elements:

First, the law institutes a regime that would ensure that tuition prices and student fees are held constant for students who complete their program in 8 semesters (10 for those in 5 year program), and for a time to be determined for transfer students.  There is no provision about tuition raises for each entering class nor any indication of increased state funding, so one likely result is that institutions will expect those who enter later to subsidize those who have entered earlier.

Second, it would simultaneously force a cut in student fees, starting in 2018. Strikingly, the law requires that student fees be cut between 10 and 25% below 2016 fee levels.  Apparently this would all but prevent the construction of a new student union at NC Central in Durham--a campus and location known for its traditions of political activism, especially around civil rights.  It may be a coincidence.  I'll leave that to you.

These first two elements--in the context of North Carolina's reduced funding for higher education--threaten to further undermine the overall quality of the state's higher education system. On the question of fees, which are often voted on by students, it represents the legislature's continuing intrusion into university life and their undermining of the University System's autonomy.  On both questions it remains unclear how Margaret Spellings, recently appointed as President of the University System, will react.

But the real heart of the Bill is in the sections dealing with the colleges and universities that have traditionally served North Carolina's minority populations.

1) SB873 lowers the tuition per semester for 5 institutions to $500 per semester. 4 of these institutions have made it their mission to serve historically under-represented groups (the fifth, Western Carolina University, has not had the same mission).  To give an example of the effect, one of the institutions (Winston-Salem State University) currently charges $1619 per semester.  So the law would reduce tuition revenue by over 2/3.  Although the prime author of the bill has indicated that the legislature might raise funding to compensate, there is no such clause in the bill or anything on the horizon. The University's Faculty Assembly estimates that this clause of the bill will cost the four minority institutions roughly 60 Million dollars annually.

2) At the same time as the bill would cut tuition revenue from residents, it also encourages the 5 institutions to increase their reliance on non-resident students. Currently, there is an 18% cap on non-resident student populations.  The Bill urges the campuses to reconsider this cap and to consider seeking more out of state students if it would "increase the number, academic strength, and diversity of student applications at those institutions." (3)  The likely result, as the Faculty Assembly notes, would be "non-minority students displacing minority students in the admissions applications pool." (4)

3) The Bill also encourages the University System to consider changing the names of these institutions.  This suggestion is a real puzzler unless the purpose is to ensure that people no longer connect these universities with their historic missions.

4) The Bill does include new funds for merit scholarships to help a small number of students to attend either North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and North Carolina Central University (40 in-state and 10 out of state students at each institution).  These are the State's other two HBCUs and they are currently on a stronger footing. By providing some increased incentive to attend NCA&T and NCCU while cutting tuition at Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Winston-Salem State University it appears that the State intends either to push the latter four institutions from their tradition mission of access or into financial insolvency.

Jelani Cobb has suggested that North Carolina's efforts to control access to public bathrooms is a haunting return to the late 1950s and early 1960s battles over civil rights--including the conflict between federal and state authority, and the declaration of state's rights and God's morality against a minority seeking equal access to public facilities.  SB873 is more than an echo.  After all, passed it threatens to undercut access to higher education for North Carolina's minority population while prompting targeted institutions to shift their demographics to out of state students or to students with less connection to the Universities' traditional missions.  Although done in the name of populism, it is a reactionary populism.

If North Carolina's legislators are really concerned with ensuring access at low prices to all of the state's students then they should fund the freeze, as Nicholas Fleisher has argued regarding similar developments in Wisconsin.  Otherwise their professed concern for students is simply empty rhetoric.

You can find the proposed law HERE

Analysis by the University's Faculty Assembly is HERE

UPDATE:  In response to criticism from the University of North Carolina System and the individual universities, the lead sponsor of the Bill has withdrawn the 3 Historically Black Universities from his proposal of a dramatic tuition cut although UNC Pembroke will still be covered..  Inside Higher Education has the story HERE.


Rosie Brown Confaab said...

Two key takeaways that I understand are 1) North Carolina's reduced funding for higher education should be immediately increased; 2) Bathroom facility for minorities is not adequate in North Carolina. Thank you for writing this post.

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