Since 2011 the North Carolina General Assembly has dealt the UNC system major budget cuts including $414 million in 2011 after Republicans first gained control of both chambers of the state legislature. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are perennial targets for state divestment. Both the BOG and the legislature worked in tandem to cut costs wherever possible at the expense of institutions that serve marginalized students.
Due to the compounded effects of the racial wealth gap, HBCUs generally possess smaller endowments and claim fewer wealthy alumni in the halls of state power. Lately, many have struggled with enrollment numbers. The matrix of those structural factors concretized for Elizabeth City State University, an HBCU in northeastern North Carolina, in 2014. That year, the NC Senate rolled out a budget that would have closed Elizabeth City State University. The proposal represented yet another attempt to “trim” the UNC System following then-governor Pat McCrory’s suggestions to cut system costs that included campus closures and mergers. However, ECSU alumni mobilized. Even now, however, the question remains, “How Good Does Elizabeth City State University have to be before the UNC System Leaves it Alone?”
Just a year later in 2015 the BOG voted to consolidate 46 degree programs throughout the university system.
In 2016 Elizabeth City State University again surfaced in a legislative bill. The North Carolina General Assembly proposed a bill that would slash tuition at five universities in the state in the name of college affordability. The schools: Elizabeth City State University (HBCU), Fayetteville State University (HBCU), Winston-Salem State University (HBCU), UNC Pembroke (enrolls a larger number of Black and Indigenous/Native American Students), and Western Carolina University enroll students who are racially and economically marginalized across the state. Estimates of the impact of this legislation point to revenue losses of $60 million each year. The following year, the original version of the 2017 Budget included a $4 million cut to the UNC School of Law that was reduced to $500,000 in compromises before the budget’s final passage.
Critics of the bill accused state lawmakers of meddling in university affairs and “whitewashing” institutions that were created to serve Black and indigenous North Carolinians. By slashing tuition at these universities, the legislature sabotaged universities without large endowments or big donor supporters. Lifting the enrollment caps, opponents of the measure noted, could be a way to admit higher-paying white students. Moreover, part of the bill allowed the UNC BOG to “change or eliminate” the state’s 18 percent cap on out of state students if the BOG determines that eliminating the cap would “increase the number, academic strength and diversity of student applications.”
Meanwhile, North Carolina was already moving toward a program called “NC Guaranteed Admission Program” designed to divert students who are “less competitive” to community colleges and guarantee admission to UNC system schools their junior year. The goal was to increase the 6-year graduation rate by deferring the least competitive students to community colleges. In 2016 a report found that the program could “imperil North Carolina’s historically black universities while hurting minority, low-income and rural students.”
A year later the 2018 Budget included new changes to create what was called the “NC Promise Plan.” The plan impacted Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke, Winston-Salem State University, and Western Carolina University and was marketed as an attempt to address the growing college affordability crisis. The plan would drastically lower tuition in order to bring more students to these universities. Yet section 10.5 G.S. 116-143.11 states that “the State shall ‘buy down’ the amount of any financial obligation resulting from the established tuition rate that may be incurred by Elizabeth City State University, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Western Carolina…” A buy down is a mortgage-financing technique where the buyer attempts to obtain a lower interest rate. According to Business Insider, buy downs usually cause the property seller to raise the purchase price to compensate for the costs of the buy down. NC Promise appears to drastically lower tuition and bring more students to universities, yet the “buy down” concept means the plan has ultimately come at students’ expense. In 2018 the total fees at UNC Pembroke rose for both in-state and out-of-state undergraduates. For many students at UNC Pembroke, the majority of whom are Indigenous/Native and Black, even a small increase can make the difference between whether they choose to attend. At Elizabeth City State University the athletics fee, health insurance fee, housing application fee, room fees, and cost of meal plans rose.
Former Sen. Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland) was the only original NC Promise Plan sponsor to receive contributions from current members of the BOG. His biggest contributor is current BOG member Michael Williford, who contributed a total of $24,700 to Meredith between 2012 and 2018. Williford was appointed to the Board in 2015, and received his JD from NCCU, an HBCU within the system not slated for Promise Plan tuition cuts.
At the beginning of October 2018, coinciding with the opening of FASFA applications for 2019, the NC Promise program launched an ad campaign. “We Promise” aimed to raise awareness amongst North Carolinians about the opportunity to utilize NC Promise. The “We Promise” ad thanked the legislature for making college more affordable; it was a $1 million ad buy launched in the heat of campaign season in a crucial year where the GOP’s hold on a supermajority was at risk.
The NC Promise Plan is sold as systemic improvement, but upon closer inspection has a detrimental impact, especially on students of color and low-income students. The NC Promise Plan could represent a dangerous set of steps towards actively defunding HBCUs.