Editor’s Note: This essay was published in the Wilson Times on March 3, 2007.
Business and political leaders from Rocky Mount and eastern North Carolina have championed the idea of transforming North Carolina Wesleyan College into a public institution within the UNC system. A study commission authorized by the legislature is wrapping up its findings, and supporters are already referring to the school as "UNC-Rocky Mount."
Their argument is that a public institution would spur economic development in Rocky Mount and eastern North Carolina and give more students access to higher education. Before the state commits to spending a substantial amount of money making a private college, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, into the 17th state-supported campus, the costs and benefits need to be carefully examined.
First, let's look at economic development. Supporters claim that the new university would draw companies to Rocky Mount, providing new jobs, and the university would educate young people in the area so they can take those jobs. "Only when we have a better educated population will we get more jobs and a degree of economic prosperity," says one local leader.
But promises of prosperity stemming from a bigger college campus may be overblown. Although it has been studied for years, economic development remains a mystery. People know that high-tech industry grew up around Boston's Route 128 area and California's Silicon Valley, and they give credit to the large numbers of universities there. But there's even doubt that that. A new report from the Brookings Institution points out that industrial towns as close as 35 miles from Boston have not benefited from Boston's technology boom.
Here in North Carolina, businesses are not flocking to other small towns with UNC schools, such as Elizabeth City or Pembroke. Would Rocky Mount be any different?
And you don't have to travel far outside of Greenville, the site of East Carolina University, to find very poor communities. If a large university like ECU — with 18,000 undergraduates — can't erase poverty, it's unlikely that "UNC-Rocky Mount" would.
It is true that making N.C. Wesleyan public and expanding it (currently it's under 800 students) would bring more state dollars into Rocky Mount. That influx would benefit companies that do business with the university, such as textbook suppliers, food vendors, and construction companies. And more professors, students, and administrators would probably drive up real estate values somewhat. Some people would benefit, but not the whole town, much less the region.
Now to the second question, would many more students be able to earn college degrees?
The crux of the issue appears to be tuition. Tuition at North Carolina Wesleyan is $17,600, substantially more than the $4,003 per year that East Carolina charges. If Wesleyan were a public school, tuition would go down, making education more affordable for students — but adding a significant burden to the taxpayers.
It's a mistake, however, to think that students in the area who can't afford to go to Wesleyan are without options today. There are five UNC schools in eastern North Carolina (East Carolina, Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, UNC-Pembroke, and UNC-Wilmington), as well as 25 community colleges, where the cost is very low.
These institutions have space for students; indeed, three of the UNC schools have special incentives from the state aimed at increasing enrollment. In recent years, ECU has fallen well short of its enrollment targets. With all of these affordable educational choices available to people in the eastern part of the state, it's hard to see that the establishment of "UNC-Rocky Mount" would solve any real problem.
This is especially the case given UNC President Erskine Bowles' emphasis on online education. Already, N.C. Wesleyan is cooperating with East Carolina University and North Carolina State University by opening the Gateway Technology Center on its campus. This provides access to online courses provided by ECU and North Carolina State. Courses are offered in business, communications, computer sciences, education, English, and engineering among other fields.
The UNC system is to be applauded for this initiative to make education even more accessible through the Internet. Other universities are doing the same. Given the costs, a "bricks and mortar" expansion in Rocky Mount looks decidedly behind the times.