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Berger expresses support for additional $5M for ECSU

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UNC President Margaret Spellings (right) visits Elizabeth City State University for a meeting with Chancellor Thomas Conway, Thursday, Feb. 16.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, February 16, 2017

State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings both reiterated their commitment to helping Elizabeth City State University grow during a visit to the campus on Thursday.

Berger, R-Rockingham, and Spellings met with university officials and toured the campus Thursday afternoon. Joining them were state Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, and several other state senators.

Berger noted he's been to Elizabeth City before, but Thursday marked his first visit to ECSU. He said senators came to check on the university and learn about its needs, noting the UNC Board of Governors has been “spearheading” an effort to move the university forward and better serve students.

The university's enrollment — currently less than 1,400 students — is “not where it needs to be,” Berger said, but he offered his vote of confidence in UNC and ECSU officials, including Chancellor Thomas Conway, who's chairing a working group of officials to quickly turn around enrollment. They've put together a plan to improve the campus's infrastructure and academics, Berger noted.

“I'm very optimistic about where we are, in terms of getting ECSU turned around and moving in an extremely positive direction,” Berger said.

Berger also offered his support for additional investments in ECSU. That includes the “NC Promise” program that lawmakers created last year. The plan will greatly discount the cost of tuition at ECSU, as well as at Western Carolina University and UNC-Pembroke, starting in fall 2018.

That discounted-tuition plan could also cost up to $50 million, Spellings said in an interview Thursday, rather than the $40 million lawmakers initially budgeted. The plan could pose a large liability to the universities if the state doesn't fully cover the program’s costs.

Asked about providing additional state funding, Berger commented, “There's a commitment in the legislature to the NC Promise program. I have told President Spellings, I have told the chancellor as well, that we are not going to pull the rug out from under the campuses that have agreed to participate.”

Earlier Thursday, Spellings and Conway explained that ECSU planned to request $5 million for three new investments over two years. They said $1.8 million of the request would be spent over two years to create a “student success center” that would supplement academic advisers and provide more regular out-of-class contact to help students given that student retention is also key to growing enrollment.

Another $1.6 million would go to accelerate accreditation for the university's aviation science program. Conway said accreditation would make the program more attractive to students and help attract corporate partners, such as commercial airlines.

The remaining $1.6 million, Conway said, would go to improve the university's education program and train students in “problem-based learning.” Like the name suggests, problem-based learning is a more active, task-oriented way to learn, and it's increasingly popular in schools, Conway explained.

While noting “I'm just one senator,” Berger said he considers the $5 million request “eminently reasonable” and “I don't anticipate a problem with that.”

The additional funding for NC Promise and the $5 million request, if approved, would show lawmakers' continued confidence in ECSU's ability to grow.

Asked if he had a specific enrollment level he wanted ECSU to reach by a certain date, Berger said no, but he would expect progress from UNC and ECSU officials.

“What I expect to hear back is that, we're on track, we're on schedule, things are working as we planned; if that's the case, I think support from the General Assembly will continue to be strong,” Berger said.

Conway also said Thursday that ECSU was in a good position to boost enrollment next fall. ECSU's completed applications for admission are almost double what they were this time last year, he said. He also noted ECSU offered admission to about 900 students last year — and the campus has already hit that number this year, with about three months left in its recruiting cycle. Typically, about one in four students offered admission to ECSU will enroll, Conway said.

Cook also briefly commented on ECSU before the lawmakers went on their campus tour. He said he hoped to share with fellow senators the importance of ECSU to the region, adding “I'm hoping for good things for the university.”

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