An Enrollment Cap at UNC?

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the Charlotte Observer on Friday, June 3, 2011.

State legislators, the governor, and University of North Carolina administrators have been trying to figure out how much to cut the UNC budget this year. Cuts are inevitable, and many people fear they will compromise academic quality.

Fortunately, there’s a way to substantially reduce the budget and preserve academic quality.

The method is to cap enrollment at the 16 universities in the UNC system. Instead of spreading UNC’s reduced resources thinly over an increasing number of students, the university would limit the number of students it accepts each year to approximately the current number.

The argument that population growth justifies further enrollment increases is bogus. From 1999 to 2009 the state’s population increased some 20 percent, but the number of students at UNC increased twice as much, by 40 percent.

Truth be told, many students in UNC classrooms shouldn’t be there. Faculty members tell me that they always have some students who are academically unprepared or who don’t want to study. Many of these students would do better elsewhere, but they are convinced they need a bachelor’s degree to succeed in life.

Many of the unmotivated and ill-prepared students drop out of school without getting a degree – some with thousands of dollars of debt. Only 63 percent of UNC system students graduate after six years.

To keep adding to the pool of disengaged students is a mistake. By limiting enrollment, the University of North Carolina could concentrate on the students with the greatest potential for learning. Graduation rates would surely rise.

Of course, everyone should have a chance at education, and that is one reason North Carolina has 58 community colleges.

These colleges offer a variety of options, all of which are less costly for both the student and the taxpayer.

Students at community colleges can pursue technical and vocational courses, such as carpentry, criminal justice technology, dental hygiene, drafting and welding technology, obtain an associate’s degree in a field such as law enforcement or nursing, or start on a baccalaureate degree, transferring to a four-year college after two years.

It’s true that community colleges are straining under enrollment increases spawned by the recent recession and weak recovery. But the state could save money by shifting funds from UNC to the community colleges. In 2009-10, for example, community colleges received $5,498 from the state for each full-time-equivalent student; the comparable figure for the university system was $13,553.

A by-product of limiting enrollment would be a reduction in remedial courses at UNC. About 5,000 students in the university system enroll each year in remedial courses, including costly summer “bridge” programs. Shouldn’t such remediation be the responsibility of community colleges?

Limiting enrollment at UNC should be a no-brainer: It would save money; it would keep universities as places for university-level work; and it would focus attention on the value of community colleges.