Western Carolina University’s Office of Leadership and Student Affairs and the WCU Student Government Association co-sponsored a nonpartisan discussion titled “The Western Carolina University Cuts Hurt Education Forum: Collaborating Toward the Success of North Carolina Education.” The forum was supported by student political groups and the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE).
The event, which was held in the Grandroom of A.K. Hinds University Center Monday night, Dec. 5, was designed to bring faculty, staff, students, political leaders and WCU community members together to talk about the effects of budget cuts to education and what community members can do to prevent further detrimental changes.
Cuts Hurt is a joint project between the Association of Student Government and all 17 UNC campuses to seek not only to unify the messages of each student government as they advocate for their individual student bodies before the NC General Assembly and US Congress, but also to amplify the voices of individual students. The University of North Carolina school system saw more than $400 million in budget cuts last year alone.
The WCU Cuts Hurt Education Forum was a collaborative effort towards the success of North Carolina education and served as the very first forum to highlight how education cuts affect an entire community. The forum speakers, which included students, House Representative Ray Rapp, NCAE representative John deVille, WCU’s Vice Chancellor Sam Miller, former Southwestern Community College president Dr. Cecil Groves, and WCU professor Dr. Lori Oxford, each explained how much the budget for public education was cut, and what the state of
North Carolina could have done to avoid the cuts. Former NC Senators John Snow and Joe Sam Queen both attended the forum to gain insight from university students. North Carolina Senator Jim Davis (R-50th District) attended the forum and welcomed the opportunity to meet with students to listen to their concerns and comments regarding educational budget cuts. “I take my hat off to the students who made the effort and put the forum together,” said Davis. “It is always great to see them involved. I was able to meet a lot of fine students. They had concerns and I was happy to listen to them and will continue to work diligently with their best interest in mind.”
According to Davis, who met with students during a reception following the forum, numerous students approached him with concerns regarding cuts in student aid and class size. “I sympathize with their concerns. They are my constituents and I want to hear what they have to say. When you are broke you have to make tough decisions that oftentimes hurt.”
Alecia Page, WCU’s undergrad student government vice president and founder of Cuts Hurt, opened the discussion noting that as a result of the budget cuts, schools throughout UNC have been forced to cancel courses, lay off faculty, and turn away students. “When you look at WCU, you can see the impact of budget cuts when you look at our classroom size, that are forever increasing,” she said. “It may not be a problem for some students, but for those of us who rely on that one on one connection with our professors, it is a problem. For those of us who came to Western for the small class sizes, for a better connection with faculty and staff, we don’t have what we came here for anymore.”
Page shared her story about how public education saved her life getting her to the point she is today. “Statistically I had all the odds stacked against me: A deadbeat dad, low income household; theoretically I shouldn’t have made it anywhere,” said Page. “But every day I stepped into a classroom and a public educator intervened for me. They made the difference. They were the ones who said ‘I know you come from a terrible situation and there is no one to believe in you, but I will believe in you,’ and that is the type of system that North Carolina has to invest in, because students like me need that,” Page said. The UNC system is facing additional cuts next year, and if they occur, tuition will continue to rise and the continued loss of faculty, classrooms and students will be seen throughout the state. With the cost of tuition rising due to budget cuts, and the money being given for financial aid remaining stagnant, it is becoming more and more difficult to afford college. “The fact that our parents don't make a lot of money and may not be able to afford the rising costs, shouldn’t determine our success in life,” said Page. “And let’s be frank, without a college degree we don’t stand a chance.”
Page explained that students in the school system have the ability to make a difference and educate policy makers about the importance of funding. She encouraged her fellow classmates to sign petitions to be sent to lawmakers, and to send letters and video messages to elected officials to explain how budget cuts affect the individual. “Our representatives need to know that we can’t afford the rising cost of education, and why should we afford the rising cost of education if the value of that education is not increasing?” said Page. “As our classroom sizes continue to get bigger, and our text books become more outdated, honestly, if the quality of your education is not increasing, neither should the price.”
Public education often must bear the burden of being at the forefront of cuts whenever the state’s budget needs to be balanced each fiscal year. Page addressed her concerns on the temporary solution that budget cuts bring when balancing the budget versus the long term consequences that lawmakers overlook when deciding to cut teacher positions and increase class sizes. “I don’t want to see the budget balanced every single year on the back of public education, as if we can make these cuts and have no effect on the future,” said Page. “Maybe we solved the problem for last year whenever we dealt universities up to a 17 percent cut. Maybe we balanced the budget by letting go 6,100 public educators. For that one moment we solved a problem, but what kind of problem did we create?,” she asked. “How many students are in overflowing classrooms that can’t learn what they need to learn, that now won’t become revenue generating members of society tomorrow because we didn't invest in them? If you refuse to invest in your education, you are refusing to invest in your future, and I don’t want to see that happen to North Carolina,” said Page.
Dr. Lori Oxford, an assistant professor of Spanish in WCU’s modern foreign language department, spoke to effects of budget cuts which have affected her department. “Everyone here knows that wherever the money is, it is not in arts and sciences, which is the part of the university that I work in,” said Oxford. “I am apart of modern foreign languages, which is the second smallest department in the college of arts and sciences, a department that is quickly growing smaller and smaller. What we do, what I do, is not ever particularly high on anyone’s priority list, especially when it comes to money.”
Oxford noted that because of the small size within her department, the effect of budget cuts are much greater. For example, cutting one teaching position within the modern foreign language department could mean cutting out an entire course, whereas larger departments in the university may not feel the severity of the impacts from the cuts.
Southwestern Community College’s former president Dr. Cecil Groves commended WCU’s students for coming together to put on such an impressive forum and encouraged them to remain active in government and policies that directly impact their lives. “You need to ask questions when people present ideas that don’t make sense,” said Groves. “If you don’t understand something it is not your fault. It is their fault. Don'’t be afraid to ask questions and to clarify things, to make your opinion known.”
Groves spoke to the importance of the forum’s topic, noting that the future of America as a world power is almost completely reliant on education. “The acquisition of knowledge and the speed by which it is required by the workforce will be the determining factor of the future economically,” said Groves. “And learning is the core element. If you have to invest in anything for return on investment, that [education] gets more return on the dollar than anything else you can do,” Groves concluded.
Jackson County native and WCU senior Emily Elders spoke during the forum to illustrate how budget cuts affect the nontraditional student. Elders will be graduating in May with an Honors special studies degree in social philosophy and political science after spending 10 years at WCU. Elders has spent the course of her college career balancing raising her six-year-old daughter and attempting to find courses to fit into her schedule while working four jobs, a task that has become increasingly difficult. According to Elders, she believes that budget cuts impact students in several ways that lawmakers do not always consider. “We always hear about our tuition and fees going up, but when was the last time you heard about the Pell Grant aid going up?” Elders also provided the crowd with several alarming statistics. “Last month was the first time in our history that student loan debt surpassed credit card debt in the United States,” said Elders. “Student loan debt just passed a trillion dollars and we are borrowing money at an average rate of $25,000 per student, per year right now.”
Elders explained that budget cuts affect her more than it may affect others because she is constantly thinking about her daughter and the future she wants to leave behind for her. “I really believe that if we all come together to collaborate with one another we can come up with a solution to solve this problem and that is the kind of message I want to leave behind for my daughter,” she said.
Corey Duvall, a Franklin High School graduate and current student at Western Carolina University, was instrumental in organizing the Cuts Hurt event. Duvall introduced Franklin High School history and philosophy teacher of 16 years, John deVille, to speak during Monday night’s forum. DeVille spoke out against the budget cuts not only as a North Carolina educator, but also as the vice-president of the Macon County chapter of the NCAE.
According to deVille, WCU experienced a $14.2 million reduction which resulted in scaling back some of the university’s programs of study and also forced a change in the university’s credit rating from stable to negative by Moody’s Investors Service. DeVille also explained that since 1984 the average cost of tuition in NC has gone up 400 percent as a share of median household income. “In 1984, tuition was $793 and the median household income was $20,569,” said deVille. “And now, this year, tuition is $6,665 with a median household income of just $43,753 meaning that 15.2 percent of a household income has to go tuition. That just can’t be right, can it? That makes no sense.”
During deVille’s slideshow presentation he explained that the current General Assembly attempted to cut 12,500 teaching assistant jobs throughout the state but actually only cut 2,300 and also cut 1,700 K- 12 teacher positions. He also noted that 4,000 teachers and 3,000 teacher assistants were cut in the previous two years.
As an educator, one of deVille’s greatest concerns is not being able to honestly answer the questions asked of him by his students regarding reasons to work toward college readiness. “Every single junior in the state of North Carolina will have to take the ACT as a measure of college readiness,” noted deVille. “And I am thinking, college ready? I want to know are the colleges ready? When the General Assembly is proposing to increase class sizes, put caps on enrollment ... I am trying to figure out how I am supposed to sell that to a 16, 17 or 15-year-old kid in my classroom why he needs to prepare for the ACT when all he has to do is point to Cullowhee, point to Raleigh, point to Winston Salem and Greensboro and say, ‘They don’t really have a place for me, and if they do have a place for me, I can’t afford it. So why should I prepare and why should I study for the ACT Mr. deVille?’ Well, I don’t know why and I don't have a clever answer for that,” he concluded.
House Representative Minority Whip, Ray Rapp (D-118th District) confessed to students that the current state of the education in North Carolina “disgusts” him. He said that according to a report done by the North Carolina Legislature two weeks ago, 6,382 positions have been eliminated throughout K-12 schools in the state since July 1. He also noted that 4,000 positions within the state are currently being funded on the federal level and, at the end of the year, that money will no longer be available and neither will the teaching positions.
“When talking about the UNC system, I think it is important to take a look at what the Board of Governors has reported on this because we have cut financial aid this year, at a time when we are looking at increasing tuition cost,” said Rapp. “This year the UNC system has lost 488 full-time positions, 2,544 part-time, temporary or contractual employees, and in addition, we have eliminated 1,487 vacant positions. As students, you are looking at the Spring and what that means: fewer classes, larger classes, longer times to graduate because the sections you need are not available and, as reported to me, about 400 students who left UNC-Greensboro early in the fall because financial aid had been cut and they couldn’t pay their bills.”
Senator Davis noted that although the event was publicized as a nonpartisan event, the speakers were obviously Democrats and Davis believed that it was unfair and could easily be construed as misleading. He noted that although Rep. Rapp spoke out against budget cuts, he failed to mention that Rapp was actually the education appropriation chair which made the cuts to the budget and felt that information should have been included to ensure a nonpartisan forum.
WCU student and event organizer Andy Miller expressed to students the importance of voicing your opinion by noting that just by organizing the event and posting a few statuses on Facebook about Cuts Hurt, WCU was able to get the attention of Gov. Bev Perdue. Although she was not able to attend the forum due to prior obligations, Gov. Perdue sent a video message to the students praising their efforts and saying that as a former elementary educator she understands the effects that budget cuts have on education and that she will continue to work to protect education within the state.
WCU’s Vice Chancellor Sam Miller spoke to the university’s students about tuition increases and informed the crowd of his efforts on behalf of the students to keep the tuition increases at a minimum while still meeting the needs and requirements of the university. Miller has been working with WCU’s student body president T.J. Eaves, in leading a committee of student, faculty and staff members in developing a proposal to fee and tuition increases. “We have been working diligently, looking at our budgets and looking at all the resources that are at our disposal and how we can best preserve the quality of your education while also maintaining what I think is so special about Western Carolina University, and that is the incredible educational value that we represent in the UNC school system,” Miller said.
According to Miller, the committee has already made recommendations to Chancellor Belcher that would deliver a 13 percent increase instead of the worst-case scenario 17 percent increase that several universities in the UNC system are experiencing.