Clash of Wills Over Enrollment Coming to Chapel Hill

UNC-Chapel Hill trustees may be on a collision course with the system-wide UNC Board of Governors—and perhaps the legislature—over whether or not the Chapel Hill campus will significantly expand enrollment.

Such a potential conflict became evident at the September 25 meeting of the trustees. At this meeting (unlike a Board of Governors meeting) there was little discussion of the need to provide more North Carolinians greater access to higher education. The subject was how UNC-Chapel Hill can persuade more top North Carolina high school students (as measured by SATs and class standing) to attend UNC-Chapel Hill.

As Chancellor Holden Thorp said at the beginning of the meeting, the goal of UNC-Chapel Hill is to give “the smartest students in North Carolina the best education.” And UNC-Chapel Hill’s reputation, especially in the U.S. News and World Report rankings but also in public opinion, depends heavily on the quality of its students.

Trustees are feeling pressure from the Board of Governors and the legislature for Carolina to “do its fair share” in finding places for 80,000 additional students anticipated over the next ten years. And, it appears, they are already chafing under the legislature-imposed 18 percent limit on out-of-state students. Out-of-state students tend to be highly qualified, and if UNC-Chapel Hill could recruit more out-of-state students it would have an easier time maintaining the quality of its student body. Because so few students can come from outside North Carolina, the motivation is intense to get as many of the most accomplished in-state students as possible to Chapel Hill.

Under the current rules, if Carolina expands enrollment, it will almost inevitably bring in less-qualified students. And, as a consultant to the university pointed out to the trustees, the quality of the student body is an important part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s reputation. If prospective students begin to think that the school is becoming less prestigious, their perception could “compound the negative effect” of expansion itself.

The university is already in an increasingly competitive environment as it recruits top students, said Stephen Farmer, director of the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. In a detailed presentation on the entering freshman class, he said that the applicant “yield” went down this year by three percentage points. That is, the number of applicants accepted by UNC-CH who actually enrolled was 52.9 per cent, compared with 55.7 last year and 54.6 per cent five years ago.

Carolina’s quality academic environment has brought it into direct competition with the South’s preeminent colleges and universities for those much-sought-after students who score 1400 or higher on the math/verbal portions of the SAT, said Farmer. These schools include Duke, Wake Forest, Davidson, Virginia, Vanderbilt, and Washington University in St. Louis.

“We’ve played ourselves into a higher league,” he said.

Indeed, much of Farmer’s presentation was positive. This is the third straight year in which the number of applications set a record (21,507). Thirty-four percent were accepted, and this “admit rate” (a measure of selectivity that contributes importantly to the U.S. News rankings) is the lowest ever. But the decline in yield can also be seen as a warning bell for university officials and trustees.

Another way of looking at the data, Farmer pointed out, is to consider all the North Carolina seniors who scored 1400 or higher on the SAT. Of this group, 86.3 percent applied to Chapel Hill, but only 40.5 percent enrolled.

Richard Hesel of the consulting firm Art and Science Group, LLC, reported on his firm’s polls of prospective Chapel Hill students. He said that “when tested simply as a number,” an increase to 33,000 students (from 27,700 now) would not have a significant impact on applications or enrollment—but only if student quality remains as high as it is now. (He measures student quality as the percentage of UNC-CH students in the top 10 per cent of their high school class; for freshmen entering this year, that figure is 79.1 percent). Growth to 36,000 would have a negative impact, regardless of its impact on quality.

Hesel said that prospective students perceive UNC-Chapel Hill as a big campus (most of them thought the population was already 33,000). The leading reason given by accepted students who do not enroll is that the university is “too big.” (They also incorrectly perceive it as a multi-campus university, he observed.) And most of the “admit/declines” go to smaller, private schools.

But high school students’ perceptions of academic quality and the highly selective student body “are often favorable enough to overcome the negatives they associate with size,” said Hesel. Thus, it is essential to maintain this selectivity by tying growth targets to “achievement of student quality measures.”

Hesel recommended that the university take a number of steps to bolster recruitment of the top North Carolina high school students. One is correcting the misconceptions about size; another is promoting the honors program, which is attractive to top students. His top recommendation, however, was to use more merit-based aid. Merit aid is a grant that is not based on a student’s financial need but on a student’s aptitude and accomplishments. Hesel’s study estimated that a $2500 increase in merit aid per student would raise acceptances from “top North Carolinians” by 8 per cent; a $5000 increase would increase them by 17 percent.

Chapel Hill already grants some merit aid. This includes named scholarships such as the prestigious Morehead-Cain and Robertson awards, which offer opportunities such as education abroad in addition to full funding. But even the news on these scholarships was not the cheeriest: acceptances of the Morehead scholarships were lower this year.

An animated conversation by board members indicated that the issue of enrollment growth will not be settled quickly. Chancellor Holden Thorp is probably the individual who will feel the most pressure to expand enrollment. In his concluding remarks he did not comment specifically on that issue, but he emphasized that the university now knows what it needs to do to strengthen its recruitment of top students. Whether the measures cited above will keep quality high enough to satisfy the trustees—and Thorp—is anyone’s guess.