Budget impasse could halt future enrollment growth and long-needed steam plant replacement
CULLOWHEE, NC – University of North Carolina System Interim President Bill Roper visited the campus of Western Carolina University today to highlight how the current state budget impasse in Raleigh is affecting the critical needs facing the university.
President Roper met with university leaders to discuss potential limits to enrollment growth for the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan for as well as critical capital projects not included in the current operating budget. Most notably, Western Carolina University is unable to repair its outdated and failing steam plant that is one harsh winter or mechanical failure away from a complete shutdown. This scenario nearly occurred in 2016, and four years later, the steam plant is living on borrowed time. The opening of the Tom Apodaca Science Building will also be delayed if operations and maintenance funding in the budget continues to be tied up into the next legislative session.
“Continuing support of our universities requires fiscal backing from our state’s leaders,” said President Roper. “My concern for the UNC System is, pure and simple, nonpartisan and apolitical, which is why I will continue to request that our state’s leaders on both sides of the aisle come together to find a resolution. I maintain hope that the budget will get enacted. There are no greater examples to illustrate the importance of getting this accomplished than the critical needs that face Western Carolina.”
Through the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan, the state reduced student tuition cost to $500 per semester at three UNC system institutions: Elizabeth City State University, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Western Carolina University. But without an enacted state budget, WCU faces a $4 million funding shortfall [designed to be covered by NC Promise buy-down funding] for fall 2018 and 2019. If the budget impasse continues, other UNC System institutions could be forced to reduce or limit enrollment growth starting as early as fall 2020 and potentially extending into fall 2021.
Delayed funding to support enrollment growth could hit Western Carolina University especially hard. Since the effective date of the current budget, Western Carolina added 1,133 new students in the previous two fall semesters to a population that currently exceeds 12,100. Although Moody’s recently reaffirmed WCU’s credit rating as Aa3, with a stable outlook, a lingering budget impasse has the potential to negatively affect the institution’s rating later this year, which could potentially limit the ability to finance planned projects.
“Each of the projects listed in the budget represents a critical need for Western Carolina University. The long-term effects of a lack of funding could be devastating to the health of our campus,” WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown said.
“We are beginning to think about the possible need to slow the rate of enrollment growth because we don’t want to enroll a larger number of students and not be able to provide them with the high-quality educational experiences that they expect,” Brown said. “The lack of funding to meet the needs of our increasing enrollment won’t be felt in just the classroom. For example, I am concerned about the impact in our ability to meet the health care needs of our students, including mental health.”