N.C. Community Colleges Weigh Differing Costs by Campus

WENTWORTH, N.C. ― North Carolina community college leaders could decide whether to let schools tack a local surcharge onto student tuition as campuses search for money to upgrade equipment to train future workers for jobs in manufacturing and health care.

Campus presidents of the 58-school system will decide later this month whether to push for allowing individual community colleges to add a surcharge that could mean up to $256 a year more for a full-time student paying $2,432 in tuition per academic year.

A major reason is the schools’ mission to prepare North Carolina’s workforce for in-demand jobs, said Robert Shackleford, president of Randolph Community College in Asheboro. Two fields with the greatest demand are advanced manufacturing and health care, he said.

Those fields “are two of the most equipment intensive programs we can offer, which means it takes a lot of money,” said Shackleford, who heads the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents.

Any decision on the surcharge would have to be approved by the state’s community college board.

Campuses are being driven at different speeds and different directions based on local economic environments, Shackleford said, thus the belief it might be best for each school to decide whether a surcharge was needed.

State spending on the 100,000-student community college system has risen 14 percent since 2007 to nearly $1.1 billion this year.

Students have seen their tuition increase by about 10 percent since 2012. State lawmakers last year raised tuition by $4 per credit hour, or up to $128 a year for a full-time student. The increase, sought by Gov. Pat McCrory, took effect in the current spring semester and increased tuition for North Carolina resident students to $2,432.

The rising costs run counter to moves in Tennessee, Oregon and Chicago offering free community college courses. President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidates have proposed taking that idea nationwide.

A $2 billion statewide borrowing package McCrory and legislators want voters to approve March 15 would distribute $980 million for construction and renovation at 17 University of North Carolina campuses and $350 million for the 58 community colleges, which would be required to find local matching funds for new construction.

Students scurrying around Rockingham Community College last week on the last day to add or drop courses for the spring semester didn’t know what to make of news that they could face another cost increase on their road to a better job.

“It’s kind of an invisible line” between what becomes too much, said Quinton Hairrson, 29, of Reidsville, whose goal is an engineering degree that helps him leave behind the home remodeling odd jobs he currently does with his grandfather. “I would just take it one step at a time.”

Dalton Atha, 18, of Eden, is one semester into his pursuit of a welding certificate – a trade he hopes will remain in great demand.

“It’s not cool,” Athat said, but “it depends how much it is really. If it’s a small increase, it wouldn’t really bother me much that it’s not going to make a big difference in the outcome of things.”