State budget is kind to UNCP

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard The University of North Carolina at Pembroke called “a hidden gem.”

I appreciate our campus being described as a “gem.” But we are determined to ensure UNCP is no longer “hidden.” I’m glad to report that the gem’s shimmer is catching the eyes of students and their families as well as decision makers. The state of North Carolina’s new two-year budget stands as proof.

The budget advances the strategic priorities of the 17-campus UNC System in a number of areas, including funding to grow enrollment and increase salaries for faculty and staff. The benefits to UNC Pembroke go even further.

In 2016, the General Assembly presented UNCP with an unprecedented opportunity to expand access to higher education by creating the NC Promise Tuition Plan. The recently adopted budget ensures the plan is fully funded, increasing the state’s investment in the three NC Promise campuses: UNC Pembroke, Elizabeth City State University and Western Carolina University.

Beginning in the fall of 2018, the three campuses will offer an undergraduate tuition rate of only $500 for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students each semester. By making college more affordable, the plan will increase the number of students who graduate and reduce the debt they incur in the process. NC Promise is a life-changing opportunity for our students and a turning point in the history of our university.

As UNCP plans for enrollment growth that will accompany NC Promise, we are exploring opportunities to expand our educational offerings to meet the needs of Southeastern North Carolina. One of those needs — a vitally important one — is health care.

Among adults living in Robeson County, 40 percent are obese, 34 percent are physically inactive, and nearly a third smoke, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which ranks Robeson County last among the state’s 100 counties in health outcomes. And most of the other counties in our region also are toward the bottom of the list.

This is not acceptable, and UNC Pembroke is committed to making a difference. The state budget supports our vision by providing $100,000 to study the creation of a School of Health Sciences and Healthcare on our campus. The school would build on our existing nursing program, which is consistently recognized for excellence in preparing diverse professionals to serve in rural communities.

Also included in the state budget is $10 million to renovate West Hall. Advancing UNCP’s Master Plan, the project allows us to maximize state resources by eliminating our current need to lease off-campus office space. In addition, the new facility will offer much-needed classrooms and study areas to serve a growing student body.

The strong support in the state budget comes on the heels of another windfall for UNCP: $23 million from the 2016 Connect NC Bond to construct a new School of Business. The state-of-the-art facility will accommodate growing enrollment and strengthen our ability to serve as an anchor institution for regional economic development. By investing in our university, the General Assembly is demonstrating its commitment to sparking job creation and investment in Southeastern North Carolina. Our state leadership clearly sees the value of UNCP to impact our region.

Since our founding 130 years ago, UNC Pembroke has consistently furthered our mission of changing lives through education. I firmly believe we are at a point in our history that will be defined not by incremental change but by transformative advancement, while remaining rooted to our core values and our region. With a clear road map, increased state investment and a vision defined by our ambitions, the future of UNC Pembroke is bright — like a shining gem.

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Dr. Robin Gary Cummings is the chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Dr. Robin Gary Cummings is the chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.