The state budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year approved by the General Assembly over the summer held an unexpected – and unpleasant – surprise for the Western Carolina athletics program. As part of an effort to close a massive budget shortfall, legislative budget-writers eliminated a special talent waiver provision that allowed University of North Carolina system athletics departments to charge in-state rates for out-of-state student-athletes on a full scholarship.
Although the move is expected to trim $9.4 million from the state budget, it also has UNC campuses scrambling to fill a large budget hole. For WCU, the loss totals about $625,000 of a total scholarship budget of $2.4 million for 2010-11, said Chip Smith, director of athletics.
“This presents a serious problem in that those scholarship commitments have been made in good faith to hundreds of student-athletes,” Smith said. “At this time, it is our intent to fulfill those promises. However, we must find ways to absorb this significant budget reduction, both this year and into the future.”
Legislators have been discussing elimination of the tuition waiver as a cost-cutting measure for the past couple years, leading Smith to develop a three-year plan to enable the athletics department to phase out the tuition waiver and identify new sources of funding to take its place. “Unfortunately, this has happened much more quickly than we anticipated,” Smith said.
To help make up the difference, the department will undergo some serious belt-tightening. One position has been cut and the duties distributed elsewhere among the staff, and other reductions are possible. “We will look at everything to find ways to reduce expenses and increase revenues as much as possible this year,” Smith said. “We will have more flexibility after this year, since we can adjust scholarship offers as necessary.”
There is some good news on the fiscal front, however, as total giving to the Catamount Club crossed the $1 million threshold for the third consecutive year, with contributions for the Catamount Club Scholarship Fund topping $400,000 for the first time; however, all but about $4,000 of that amount already was earmarked for scholarships. The club now boasts 813 members, including 317 new members who signed up during the past year.
“I have received many calls about this issue from Catamount Club members expressing disappointment and asking what can be done to meet our needs. I feel confident our fans and supporters will step up,” said Smith.
“We have made much progress in the past several years. No one wants to slow the momentum we have built. Neither should we lower our standards or principles in overcoming this obstacle. The difficulty we face is as much a test of our commitment to the purpose of Western Carolina athletics as it is a financial burden,” he said.