A view of Western Carolina University in Cullowhee from WCU’s webcam. Photo courtesy of WCU via uccam.wcu.edu.

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North Carolina residents will see a big difference in the tuition to attend Western Carolina University next fall.

The school will charge in-state undergraduates $500 a semester in tuition as one of the three schools selected for N.C. Promise, the N.C. legislature’s college affordability program.

The tuition drop will likely lead to a jump in interest in WCU, following a decade in which the school has seen climbing enrollment, said Phil Cauley, the campus’s assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate enrollment.

“WCU is the best-kept secret in North Carolina,” Cauley said.  “NC Promise is going to heighten that awareness.”

The program cutting tuition will begin in the fall of 2018, and comes as the school is already experiencing record enrollment. More than 11,000 students are on campus this fall, a record number and an uptick of 20 percent over the last 10 years.

The campus was one of three selected by the state legislature in 2016 for the N.C. Promise program, which offers $500-a-semesterl tuition to North Carolina undergraduate students in an attempt to address college affordability. The two other campuses are in the eastern part of the state, at Elizabeth City State University, one of the state’s five HBCUs in the northeastern part of the state, and at University of North Carolina-Pembroke in southeastern North Carolina.

Located in Jackson County’s Cullowhee, WCU has served Western North Carolina for generations. WCU draws heavily from the rural high schools in North Carolina’s mountains, with large portions of college-bound graduates electing to become Catamounts, Cauley said.

Cauley said the university will continue serving a large portion of youth headed to college from WNC, but that others in the state could look at the campus with new eyes.

“Maybe it will be attractive to folks who will look at us who wouldn’t have looked at us before,” Cauley said.

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But if cost is the driving force in a college choice, Cauley said students and their families should also consider the state’s community college system. Students can study there for two years, and easily transfer into a four-year school like WCU and have their credits transferred as well.

Costs remain beyond tuition

Many mistakenly assume that a $500 check will cover the cost of going to WCU once N.C. Promise kicks in, Cauley said. But that fails to take in to account all the various fees and room and board estimates, he said.

That doesn’t mean the tuition drop is insignificant, though, with a savings of approximately $1,500 a semester.

The drop in tuition is certainly a welcome development for W. Coleman Leopard, a 21-year-old from Waynesville scheduled to graduate next year.

“I’m excited,” he said. “Students are pumped, because it’s offering such a cheap tuition rate.”

Leopard is pursuing a triple major, in business administration, political science and business law. He chose to come to WCU after first attending Haywood Community College.

Though he didn’t expect to like attending a four-year school so close to where he grew up, Leopard said he’s thrived on WCU’s campus. He increasingly sees others from WNC do well at the school because of its extensive degree offerings.

“It’s made it more of a destination for locals,” he said.

Some on campus are worried that the advertised drop in tuition will lead to higher enrollments, larger classes and a more selective student body, said Katherine Spalding, a WCU junior from Fuquay-Varina who is also the campus student-body president.

“I haven’t heard anyone talking about it other than they’re worried about our class sizes and increased enrollment,” she said.

But Cauley, the WCU admissions official, said that’s unlikely to happen overnight. The campus is a good fit for those who are comfortable in a more rural environment and isn’t for everyone. He points out that WCU is the only campus in UNC’s 17-campus system located in an unincorporated town.

Faculty are supportive of the N.C Promise program as well, and want to take on additional efforts that ease the burdens faced by financially struggling students, said Brian Railsback, an English professor and chair of the university’s Faculty Senate.

“Our concern for years has been about people that just can’t afford to come to Western,” he said.

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There’s been little drawback to the tuition program, with the legislature following through on their promise so far to cover the decrease in tuition revenue, he said.

Railsback said he hopes state lawmakers follow through with the tuition reduction for years to come.

“You always wonder how long these programs will last,” he said. “hopefully, forever, but things change with each budget.”

The added interest will likely make open slots in high demand, and Cauley suggests those wanting to attend don’t delay in letting the school know they’ll attend.

If the school has extended an offer and hasn’t heard from a student by May 1, it will quickly offer the slot to someone on a waiting list.

“You’re eligible to come, but we’re not holding a seat for you until you tell us you’re coming,” Cauley said.

Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a contributing state government reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at sarahovaskafew@gmail.com.

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