Durham County

Tuition waiver for N.C. School of Science and Mathematics makes final draft of state budget

Graduates of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics will once again have a tuition waiver if they go to college in the UNC system, thanks to the state’s proposed budget for 2017-18.
Graduates of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics will once again have a tuition waiver if they go to college in the UNC system, thanks to the state’s proposed budget for 2017-18. rgronberg@heraldsun.com

After missing out in three earlier drafts of the state budget, a proposal to restore the tuition waiver that graduates of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics used to get to attend one of the UNC system’s universities made it into the one that counts.

Released overnight by N.C. House and state Senate leaders, the compromise spending plan for fiscal 2017-18 includes $1.5 million that will go to the members of the next spring’s graduating class at the Durham boarding school if they accept a college offer from UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State University or any of the other 14 universities in the system.

For now, the money’s a one-time offer that will cover only one year of college study.

“But I’m happy it’s in there at all,” said NCCSM Chancellor Todd Roberts, who added that he hopes legislators eventually extend the program.

He noted that the $1.5 million amount was “in alignment” with what the UNC system had requested, which was essentially start-up money to cover the first year of university study for the upcoming crop of graduates from Science and Math.

The system request envisioned a yearly phase-in that would eventually cost the state $6 million a year, to cover four years of university study by successive graduating classes.

Even as it’s now written, the allocation represents the N.C. General Assembly’s second change of mind about a program Roberts and other supporters argue encourages NCSSM graduates to stay in the state to pursue their bachelor’s degrees.

With former state and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Guilford, leading the way, legislators backed a UNC tuition waiver for the school’s alumni that lasted for the classes that graduated from 2004 to 2010.

But after Hagan moved on to the U.S. Senate, former state Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, led a charge to repeal the waiver. He succeeded in getting it struck down in 2009, amid the budget shortfalls unleashed by the recession.

Luebke and other critics argued that the waiver was unfair, particularly to the graduates of the state’s other high schools. The School of Science and Math is a special, two-year program for rising 11th-graders seen as having both the interest and talent to thrive in a science-heavy curriculum.

But Luebke died last year, and after the 2011 Republican takeover of the General Assembly, his influence there had waned anyway. By the time he died, UNC system officials were already pushing for a restoration of the waiver.

Nonetheless, the money didn’t surface in the draft budgets successively proposed by Gov. Roy Cooper, the state Senate and the House. It emerged only in the House-Senate compromise proposal released Monday night.

“Probably, as in most of the cases, when they get to the end and understand the funding available, they look at priorities,” Roberts said of its last-minute addition. “This was certainly one of the priorities listed by the UNC system.”

Given the Republicans’ supermajority control of both chambers, passage of the budget is all but ensured even if Cooper should veto it.

NCSSM officials believe the waiver has significant influence on their graduates’ college choices. Typically, 55 percent or so of graduates have wound going to a UNC university when it hasn’t been in effect. In the years it was, UNC attendance among grads spiked to about 75 percent.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg