Pending bills represent progress toward reforming higher ed in North Carolina

Historically, higher education has been relatively left alone by the North Carolina legislature; this year represents a slight departure from that trend. For one thing, Governor McCrory has made the community colleges a focus of his administration and has called attention to their needs. And the University of North Carolina system has increasingly been in the news, for reasons both good and bad, causing more legislators to question its operations.   

In the first four months of the 2015 legislative session, 51 higher education bills were filed in the House and Senate combined. After the legislature’s self-imposed “crossover” deadline on April 30, roughly half survived. Any legislation unrelated to taxes, fees, or spending that hasn’t passed at least one chamber by that deadline is off the table until next year. 

Several controversial reform bills—including one to increase faculty teaching loads and another to shift the cost of remediation to counties from community colleges—did not make the cut.

Of the survivors, here are a few worth watching as the session continues:

H 15 and H 579: Year-Round Funds for Community College Courses. Both bills would increase the number of summer session community college courses funded by the state. Currently, the state provides year-round funding for technical education, health care, developmental education and STEM-related courses. House Bill 15 would extend funding to all courses that are transferable to UNC for general education credit. House Bill 579 goes further, extending funding to all summer courses. 

Both bills have potential long-term benefits for the state, even though they would initially increase appropriations to the community college system. They would enable students at both community colleges to attend more classes year-round, reducing the time it takes to earn a degree and enter the skilled workforce. And they would greatly reduce future capital spending, since buildings would be in use year-round instead of just for eight months. 

H 709, H 860, and S 478: Veterans’ Education. Veterans and the military are becoming more prominent features in North Carolina’s higher education landscape. The state has a large military presence, and many veterans who are based here remain after their terms of enlistment are through.

This trio of bills is representative of a serious effort by North Carolina policymakers and colleges to address veterans’ issues. They seek to lower tuition and fees for certain active duty military members and veterans. 

House Bill 709 extends tuition assistance benefits to National Guard members enrolled in graduate certificate programs. House Bill 860 would limit community college tuition for re-enrolling active duty service members.  

Senate Bill 478 would waive the 12-month residency requirement for certain veterans, effectively making them in-state students. The bill ensures that North Carolina veterans remain eligible for GI Bill benefits.

H 657: Study UNC Fixed Tuition. This bill sets out to address a growing problem—rapidly increasing tuition. Over the past 30 years, according to language in the bill, “across the United States, the average increase for tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year universities was 225%.”  

Often, students entering college assume they have enough money set aside to complete their educations, but tuition increases lay waste to their careful planning. As a solution, the bill directs the UNC Board of Governors to study the establishment of a fixed payment option at all UNC schools. A fixed payment would guarantee that students, once enrolled in an institution, wouldn’t see tuition rise for a predetermined number of semesters.  

If passed, the bill would require the Board to report its findings by February of next year.

H 844 STEM Teacher Forgivable Loan Program. This bill attempts to address North Carolina’s shortage of K-12 teachers in certain high-need fields: science, technology, engineering, mathematics and special education. Instead of creating a fix within the K-12 system, however, it does so by creating a new forgivable loan for high-performing students who intend to become teachers in North Carolina’s public schools. If implemented, the program will cost over $8 million in the first two years. 

S 536: Students Know Before You Go. This bill would help prospective college students make better decisions about their future education. If passed, it will mandate that the State Education Assistance Authority (a source of student loan and scholarship information in North Carolina) include information about graduation rates, student debt, and graduates’ earnings on its website. Although this information is already available online, it is spread over many different websites and tools. Putting it together in one place would make it easier for students to access and interpret. 

S 561: Career and College Ready Graduates. This bill takes aim at the high rate of remediation in community colleges. It points out that: “of those students in 2013 who graduated from high school and immediately enrolled in a North Carolina community college, 52% were required to take one or more remedial courses at that the community college, including 41% who were required to take a remedial math course, and 36% who were required to take a remedial reading and English course.” 

The bill would task the State Board of Education with developing a program to address the remediation problem. High school students whose skills fall below certain standards at the end of their junior year will be required to take “remedial” courses in their senior year, rather than taking such courses after graduation in community colleges as they do now. The NC Community College System would help to set the standards for determining student readiness and community college faculty would provide training in remedial education instruction. 

S 670: Term Limits for BOG Members. This bill, if passed, will limit the number of terms members of the UNC Board of Governors can serve. Under current law, board members cannot serve more than three consecutive four-year terms. This bill would strike that language from the law, capping the number of total terms at three regardless of when they occur.  

The law would affect at least one current board member. J. Craig Souza, who served on the board from 1997 to 2009, is now serving a fourth non-consecutive term. If passed, this bill would prevent Souza from being reappointed to a fifth term in 2018. 

Most of the remaining bills this session, including those described above, won’t be controversial. At least three bills—H 657, S 561, and S 536—sailed through floor hearings with unanimous “Aye” votes. Several other bills address local issues concerning community college boards of trustees. All passed handily.

Taken as a whole, these pending bills represent progress toward reforming higher education in North Carolina. However, they are only scratching the surface of the work that needs to be done. The scandals at UNC-Chapel Hill show that the UNC system desperately needs to be made more transparent. And more attention should be directed to reducing the cost of a university education by making the system more efficient.  

Even so, some reform is better than none.