Association works to boost private colleges, universities

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — At some of the private colleges and universities in North Carolina, up to 80 percent of students represent the first generation in their family to go to college.

And because only 27 percent of adult North Carolinians hold baccalaureate degrees, many of those first-generation college students often lack the family support systems that can be critical to help stay in college once they get there.

What’s more, with the cost of college rising, simply paying for it can be tough.

Working to address all those issues and others affecting private higher education in the state is North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities.

Formed in 1969, the Raleigh-based association serves as the statewide office for the state’s 36 private, nonprofit colleges and universities.

Enrollment totals 88,000 students at those schools, with North Carolinians accounting for 55 percent of their undergraduates, and they employ about 65,000 people, making private higher education overall one of the largest private-sector employers in the state, says Hope Williams, the organization’s president.

Operating with an annual budget of $1 million and a staff of 9 people, the association provides professional development for faculty and staff at its schools; group purchasing programs to encourage cost savings; projects to increase student retention; collaboration with the UNC system, state community college system, and state Department of Public Instruction; public policy work; and support for fundraising and academic programs.

The Independent College Fund of North Carolina, a fund formed in 1953 that became part of the statewide group in 1995, for example, raises financial support for scholarships and programs at its schools.

Directed by James E. Brown Jr., who joined the association in July after retiring as managing director for the public and institutional banking group at RBC, the fund raised a record-high $2.3 million in the fiscal year ended May 31.

Of that total, $988,000 was for named scholarships, including over $50,000 each from the Golden Leaf Foundation, UPS, Duke Energy, Wells Fargo and BB&T.

And with $852,000 this year from a $4 million federal grant to the state, the association is providing mini-grants and other support to increase retention of students.

Funded in part through support from the Cannon Foundation in Concord, collaboration also is a big focus of the organization, which is a founding member of the Coalition for College Cost Savings, a group that includes higher-education associations in 30 states.

A student identification card system recently made available through the statewide association, for example, meant a 25 percent discount on a $400,000 system for its first user, Chowan University in Murfreesboro.

And consulting services to recover state sales tax refunds that nonprofits can claim under state law helped recover over $1 million for four institutions, says Chuck Taylor, who joined the group a year ago as director of its collaboration initiative after retiring as vice president for business and chief financial officer at Wingate University in Wingate.

And thanks to advances in technology, he says, future collaborations even could include sharing professors.

“We’re just now scratching the surface of what can be done to save institutions cost and to add value for the students,” he says.

Williams says a possible effort by state lawmakers to rewrite the tax code could eliminate those refunds, a move that could mean the loss of over $200 million for all nonprofits in the state, including $60 million for private colleges and universities.

That could result in higher costs for students at those schools, where annual tuition and fees average just over $24,000, compared to a national average of $28,500 for private colleges and universities.

“The biggest challenge,” Williams says, “is affordability for students.”

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