Is UNC Playing Selectivity Games?

As applicant pools get smaller, colleges will have to work hard to maintain standards.

Enrollment declines have finally come to North Carolina. In the past decade, universities across the country began to see declining undergraduate enrollments, first in the Northeast and the Midwest, then in the West. Now, the UNC System is seeing the same trend. The 2021 UNC System Fall Enrollment Report states:

At the undergraduate level, UNC System enrollment decreased by 652 students (0.34 percent) from 2020 to 2021. The fall 2021 undergraduate enrollment of 191,518 is also slightly lower than the 2019 figure of 191,632.

This decline in enrollment can be traced back to demographics. Nationwide, the number of high-school graduates is falling. This is compounded by the fact that fewer recent high-school graduates are choosing to enroll in four-year schools directly after high school. In October 2021, 61.8 percent of recent high-school graduates enrolled in college—compared to a peak of 70.1 percent in 2009. The UNC report adds, “External projections indicate a significant dip in North Carolina high school graduates in 2022 and significant national declines over the next decade.”

An unacknowledged response to the shrinking pool of young people has been an increase in admission rates.UNC institutions knew this trend was coming. And they have already changed policies in the hope of attracting more students to North Carolina. But one unacknowledged response to the shrinking pool of young people seems to have been an increase in admission rates at many UNC institutions.

In 2021-2022, the average school in the system admitted more than 70 percent of applicants. East Carolina, UNC Greensboro, and UNC Pembroke admitted more than 90 percent of the students who applied in 2021. Systemwide, selectivity has been declining since 2015. Before that, it had been steadily increasing. The pandemic policy of waiving standardized testing requirements likely accelerated this trend.

But there is a lot of variation between institutions.

UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State, and UNC School of the Arts have become more selective over time. At many schools in the system, there is significant variation from year to year.

As the pool of recent college graduates continues to shrink, the UNC System should keep an eye on institutions’ admissions rates. Undermining admissions standards to maintain enrollment should not be the way forward.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.