How to Right-Size a University System

Academia is notoriously resistant to major changes. Whereas private sector firms rise, fall, merge, reorganize, acquire, and cast off unprofitable divisions with amazing speed, colleges and universities are hampered by unwieldy systems of governance, iron-bound traditions, and intense resistance from entrenched interests.

The problem is exacerbated when it is not merely an individual school faced with changing with the times and new conditions but an entire system of institutions. With the increase in scale comes even more complex governance and even more resistance.

The University of North Carolina system provides just such an example. In 1972, it expanded from six to 16 constituent campuses, one of them a residential magnet high school and another an arts academy. It has two land grant schools, five historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), an elite flagship with extensive research capabilities, two liberal arts colleges, two medical schools and more. Each campus has a Board of Trustees, a chief executive (chancellor), and two extensive bureaucracies, one of staff and one of faculty, while the system has its own Board of Governors (BOG), president, and general administration.

Today, the system is faced with an important existential question: how to “right-size” the system itself, which may include reducing the number of campuses. This question badly needs to be addressed, and soon; as Harry Smith, the chair of the BOG’s budget and finance committee, admitted in March, “[P]eople have been ducking this conversation for a long time.” 

And for good reason. Many vocal and powerful constituencies, including faculty and alumni, will protest any suggestion of campus closures or consolidations. But stagnating enrollment, poor student performance, and low job placement rates show that the UNC system needs reform. In response, the UNC Board of Governors will soon begin its discussion on the matter.

As the board begins the difficult process, objective standards and rigorous analysis must be used to ensure the best outcome for students and citizens of North Carolina. Political and campus pressure should play no part in the process, no matter how loud or shrill the opposition becomes.

Here are a few criteria the board should keep in mind:

Student Success: Graduation rates, job placement rates, and results on national assessments (such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment) should be used to measure the value universities are delivering for their students and for the state’s tax dollars. 

Across the system, six-year graduation rates range from approximately 35 percent at UNC Pembroke, Elizabeth City State, and Fayetteville State to 90.3 percent at UNC-Chapel Hill. Job placement rates vary significantly by university and major. The university system is in the process of creating a learning assessment across all of its campuses that could be the basis for comparison. Universities with very poor outcomes across several performance measures should be considered for closure or consolidation.

Geography and Demographics: Universities that serve overlapping or shrinking populations should be considered for consolidation. There are seven universities lining the 100-mile stretch of interstate between Raleigh and Winston-Salem. Despite the dense population in that area, the number could easily be reduced to six or even five. And in the southern part of the state, less than an hour’s drive separates UNC Pembroke and Fayetteville State. The two schools serve similar populations. 

Enrollment: Universities with small, declining, or stagnating enrollments—including Elizabeth City State, NC Central, and UNC-Pembroke—should be considered for consolidation.  

That’s true particularly if enrollments cannot be maintained from the existing pool of North Carolina students. Lowering academic standards in order to admit more students—which will occur at NC Central, Elizabeth City State, and Fayetteville State this fall—is a sign that demand for seats at those schools is weak. Lowering tuition for out-of-state “border” students is another gambit to overcome weak demand. Both tactics weaken the UNC system. Schools that employ them should be ready to face possible consolidation.

Put simply, it may be the case that five public HBCUs, once essential to providing access to higher education for  minority students, are too many in 21st Century North Carolina. Minority students have far more options than they did fifty years ago; many of the best minority students prefer to attend more prestigious schools that best match their skills and whose student bodies more closely reflect the highly diverse population of North Carolina.  

Private Grants and Contracts: To remain vibrant, research universities should attract private grants and contracts. Outside money from research is evidence that a university is performing at a high level. Research universities that receive less than five percent of revenue from private research should be considered for consolidation. The research schools in the UNC system are East Carolina, NC A&T, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte, and UNC-Greensboro. 

Plenty of classroom and lab seats will still be available even if a few campuses are shuttered. System-wide, many classrooms and seats remain empty throughout the day. With the typical classroom seat filled an average of 17.54 per week (lab seats are used only 10.86 hours per week), the remaining universities will be able to easily meet the demand of qualified North Carolina students.

But closures aren’t the only way to boost the system’s efficiency. Consolidating administrative and academic functions across campuses should also be considered. Consolidation offers some efficiency advantages; human resources, legal services, and student aid are three possible services that could be performed centrally.

One consolidation suggestion that has been mentioned in recent years is making struggling Elizabeth City State a branch campus of East Carolina University. Doing so could help Elizabeth City with its enrollment shortfalls, as the attainment of an East Carolina degree is likely to attract more and better applicants to the Elizabeth City campus.

Closing or consolidating campuses are major decisions likely to upset somebody. But the UNC system has some schools turning away high percentages of applicants, and others employing self-defeating methods such as lowering standards to prevent a freefall in enrollment, not to mention low usage rates of facilities throughout. The board should keep all options on the table as it reshapes the UNC system for the next generation of students, while adhering to its mandate to make “an efficient use of available resources.”