To Please U.S. News & World Report, UNC Wants to Cut In-State Enrollment

The latest raspberry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to the state’s hoi polloi is that their kids aren’t good enough to fulfill Chancellor James Moeser’s vision of achieving “the best public university in the nation.” Thus UNC-CH wants to cut the proportion of students it enrolls from NC.

An editorial in The Daily Tar Heel May 29 explains. Despite Moeser’s best efforts, “the well-read annual U.S. News & World Report rankings … have not provided Moeser with any evidence that his plan is working, with UNC-CH hovering at fifth place among public universities for years,” editorial writer Jeff Silver laments. “So how can UNC-CH move up, both in the magazine’s rankings and in general?”

Here’s the proposed answer: “The UNC-system Board of Governors must allow the University to increase the number of out-of-state students it enrolls each year,” Silver writes. Later he adds, “First and foremost, the excellence of the student body is hampered significantly by the 18 percent cap.”

That answer was first proposed in the newly released academic plan now before the university’s trustees. It urges trustees to “Reassess the implications of the 18 percent cap on undergraduate out-of-state students.” According to the UNC-CH plan, the state’s current cap “is more restrictive and rigid compared with those governing UNC-Chapel Hill’s peer campuses.” Worse, some of the brightest students in NC go out-of-state for a college education. As a result, “The University must decline admission to thousands of exceedingly bright out-of-state applicants whose presence on campus would add to the geographic, intellectual, artistic, and cultural diversity of the student population, as well as offset the “brain drain” of North Carolina talent to other states” UNC-CH wants “relief from the current out-of-state enrollment cap.”

Well, cry us all a powder-blue river already. Weep the fate of the poor public university saddled with its own state’s students.

How fast this problem cropped up! It seems like just a few days ago UNC-CH was trumpeting how smart its latest class of enrollees is, despite that “restrictive” cap. Actually, it was. Steve Farmer, senior associate director of admissions, described them as “the strongest academically in University history,” according to the DTH April 1. Perhaps it was an April Fools’ prank?

And it seems like just a few years ago that UNC-CH and its supporters were citing a pending enrollment increase as a reason to vote for the higher education bond issue. Actually, it was. The News & Observer of Sept. 15, 2000, quotes UNC President Molly Broad delivering her pitch before Rotarians in High Point about the bond issue: “But this is not as much about bricks and mortar as it is about providing opportunity for your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and fueling the economy of North Carolina.” A brochure entitled “Higher Education: Shaping North Carolina’s Future,” published by the UNC-CH Office of Government Relations and the pro-bond lobbying group North Carolinians for Educational Opportunity, said the bond would “enable Carolina to welcome a possible enrollment increase of 5,000 new students over the next ten years.”

Silly us — we thought they were talking about students from North Carolina. “Providing opportunity for your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,” “Higher Education: Shaping North Carolina’s Future,” “North Carolinians for Educational Opportunity,” — we’re not sure how we got that misperception.

There is a highly rated (by USN&WR), highly reputed university in North Carolina that doesn’t have to worry about a cap on out-of-state enrollment. This major research university also doesn’t have to worry about other issues that plague UNC-CH nearly every year. This institution doesn’t annually wrangle with the General Assembly over such issues as how much it can charge for tuition, how much it can pay its faculty, and what it is allowed to do with its federal research overhead money.

That institution is Duke University. It’s private. Now while being private means Duke can’t rely on public support for fixing any dilapidated buildings, it also means Duke doesn’t have to answer to the public about its out-of-state enrollment (53.4 percent of its total enrollment in 2001-02). Neither do other highly reputed, private NC institutions, such as Davidson (80.7 percent of its total enrollment was out-of-state in 2001-02) and Wake Forest (59.4 percent out-of-state in 2001-02).
It’s not inconceivable that UNC-CH could choose the private road. It has a well-deserved reputation for excellence, it has a significant endowment, and as demonstrated quite recently, it is quite capable of raising capital. (“It’s official. UNC is a billionaire,” began a May 24 Durham Herald-Sun article. “[T]he university’s capital campaign reached the $1 billion mark, placing the school in some elite company.”)And, of course, it has “thousands of exceedingly bright out-of-state applicants” every year already.

As a public entity designed to serve North Carolinians and paid for by North Carolinians, however, UNC-CH ought to be careful to ensure its aspirations don’t exceed the public perception of its mission. From within the confines of Chapel Hill the DTH editorialist sees such obvious benefits to UNC-CH’s rankings of a greater out-of-state enrollment that he is compelled to write, “as they say, the proof is in the pudding.” The problem is, as those who know the proverb say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” And this proposal of UNC-CH’s is likely to leave a bad taste in North Carolinians’ mouths.