Freshman rep takes up decade-long push for mountain college
On a road map, you’ll find Tri-County Community College in the far western corner of North Carolina.
If you look at a topographic map, the college sits within a ring of mountains formed by the Blue Ridge, forming a natural valley community made up of North Carolina’s Cherokee County and several border counties in north Georgia.
But for the college, the invisible border of the state line represents a more imposing barrier than the mountains surrounding them.
For years, Tri-County Community College has wanted to offer in-state tuition to Georgians who live in one of those counties. That, administrators say, would help fill empty seats in their classrooms while also funneling more people to North Carolina employers and universities.
But since 2009, every legislative effort to give them the ability to do so has been stymied by a lack of action.
Freshman Rep. Karl Gillespie, R-Murphy, is the latest to take up the mantle on behalf of the college. His House Bill 81 would create a pilot program to offer in-state tuition to residents of four border counties in Georgia, provided their students do not displace a N.C. resident. The program would expire in 2025.
Georgia already allows border counties in North Carolina to pay in-state tuition at North Georgia Technical College in Blairsville, about 20 miles from Tri-County.
The N.C. bill passed the house by a 115-1 vote. Sen. Kevin Corbin, R-Murphy, has an identical bill in the Senate, which is now in a committee.
“North Carolina has been losing students to Georgia for years,” Gillespie told Carolina Journal. “It will enable us to retain folks after they are trained to fill vital positions in our workforce. This agreement is a great example of doing what’s best for our citizens.”
Tri-County was one of a few N.C. colleges targeted for elimination in the early 2000s due to low enrollment.
College leaders say they would be able to handle additional students from Georgia in existing classes without needing to hire more instructors.
But today, few Georgia high school grads are willing or able to pay out-of-state tuition to get to Tri-County’s well-respected welding or automotive programs. For North Carolina residents, a full course load costs $1,200 per semester. The out-of-state rate is nearly $4,300.
These people, college administrators say, are already part of the community. High school guidance counselors in Georgia regularly call up Tri-County and invite them to attend their career fairs. You’ll see plenty of Georgia plates in the employee parking lot at Moog Components or the Walmart on US-19.
“This pilot project would allow the college to welcome more students who will not only benefit from the excellent education and training we offer, but also help grow the North Carolina tax base by their purchases of food, gas and other essentials,” said Donna Tipton-Rogers, president of Tri Tri-County Community College. “I believe this is a conservative approach to allow us to expand service to our community without increasing operational costs.”
It is unclear whether the bill will come to a vote in the Senate.
The decade-long journey of this particular legislative effort illustrates the difficulty even representatives of the majority party can have in pushing through a project for their districts.
Whenever it’s come up for a vote, it’s passed with nearly unanimous consent. But whenever the House has passed the bill, the Senate hasn’t taken it up — and vice versa.
Representatives of the far western corner of the state just haven’t had enough pull to get it across the finish line.
Between Gillespie and Corbin, Tri-County leaders are optimistic this year, calling it the best opportunity yet.
“I believe it is important to allow neighbors to help neighbors, irrespective of state lines,” Tipton-Rogers said. “Our neighbors in north Georgia, some of whom live less than six miles from my office and shop at the same North Carolina businesses as me and my family, ought to have same opportunity for quality post-secondary education.”
Andrew Dunn is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.