Fewer than 20 percent of North Carolinians know about major tuition cuts at three state universities, but leaders of the University of North Carolina System are working to change that.

Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University, under a program called NC Promise, now offer tuition of $500 per semester to in-state students. Out-of-state students will pay reduced tuition of $2,500 per semester.

UNC launched a campaign, “We Promise,” Oct. 1 to publicize the program. The campaign also advertises UNC’s fixed tuition plan, which guarantees tuition will stay the same over four years at any UNC school. 

State lawmakers enacted the program in 2016, investing $51 million to improve enrollment at some of North Carolina’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Critics protested the law, citing concerns over potential revenue losses. Only ECSU chose to participate.

The General Assembly hasn’t put a sunset date on the program, and there’s plenty of support for NC Promise — even if the legislature’s majority switches from Republican to Democrat after the 2018 midterm elections, UNC President Margaret Spellings told Carolina Journal.

“I can’t find anyone who doesn’t think college should be more affordable,” Spellings said. “Of course, once you start providing a benefit like this people are drawn to it. I’m confident the legislature will see the merit of the policy they’ve put in place and will continue to fund it.”

The cuts only apply to tuition. Still, slashing costs allows students to use financial aid for other expenses such as room and board, fees, and books, Spellings said.

Enrollment is climbing at all three universities even though the public is largely unaware of NC Promise, data from UNC show.

Undergrad transfer rates saw the largest spike, with ECSU at a 57 percent increase over 2017, data from UNC show. UNCP saw a 56 percent bump in the same category, and WCU scored a 40 percent increase.

First-year enrollment jumped 20 percent at ECSU and UNCP, and just more than 10 percent at WCU since 2017. Total undergrad enrollment at ECSU, UNCP, and WCU shot up 19 percent, 14 percent, and 6.6 percent, respectively.

WCU doesn’t attribute growth to NC Promise, NPR reported in September.

The school has seen constant growth over the past decade — mostly due to engineering and anthropology programs, university officials told NPR.

But ECSU, an HBCU with a total enrollment of about 1,300, is uniquely set to benefit from the program. The university hit rough turf between 2010 and 2016, when enrollment plunged 59 percent. Budget cuts and leadership turnover have plagued the university.

Today, NC Promise has driven ECSU enrollment to a five-year high, officials said in a press release. The 2018 freshman class “includes the largest number of students enrolled in the honors program in ECSU history.”

UNC will gather data on participating students, looking for ways to support graduates and improve the program. Enrollment and transfer rates are encouraging, but UNC must do more to push the program among state residents, Spellings said.

“People don’t know about it. We’ve done some polling … and only 14 percent of the people in the state even know about NC Promise, and even with that we’ve had this good take-up.

Things like this take time to really germinate. But by gosh … a college degree is affordable in our state — with three really good options.”