How the UNC System is Propping Up Enrollment

Some of the System’s tactics are good. Others, not so much.

Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment has been falling since 2010. The trend is being driven both by a shrinking pool of high-school graduates and those graduates choosing to attend universities at lower rates than in the past.

This year, the demographic decline finally hit North Carolina. For the first time in nine years, total enrollment is down at UNC-System schools. The 2022 Fall Enrollment Report provides details:

The total headcount for fall 2022 was 239,663, a decrease of 4,837 students, or -1.98 percent over fall 2021. At the undergraduate level, UNC System enrollment decreased by 3,834 students (-2 percent) from 2021 to 2022. Graduate enrollment saw a similar decline with a fall 2022 graduate enrollment of 51,987, which was a decrease of 1,003 students or -1.89 percent over the prior year.

But the decline didn’t take UNC by surprise. The System has been preparing for years by implementing a series of policy changes designed to attract additional students. Unfortunately, some of the System’s tactics to increase enrollment have significant negative side effects.

Here are some of the strategies that UNC is using:

  • In 2017, the UNC System introduced an initiative to help former students earn their undergraduate degrees. According to UNC, “There are more than an estimated 1.1 million adults in North Carolina who have some college credit, but don’t hold an associate or bachelor’s degree.” UNC’s initiative for these “Partway Home” students fills empty seats at UNC institutions and helps students over the finish line. As such, it is a positive development as long as readmission standards remain high.
  • In 2021, the UNC System unveiled Project Kitty Hawk, a nonprofit ed-tech startup that will partner with UNC-System universities to serve adult learners. The project is an attempt to compete with out-of-state online education providers, which currently serve a large number of North Carolina students. The project has the potential to provide real value to both students and citizens if it is implemented wisely—but it’s still too soon to know.
  • In 2016, the legislature created the North Carolina Promise tuition plan, which decreased tuition at three UNC institutions to $500 per semester for in-state undergraduate students and $2,500 for out-of-state students. The program has been a boon to struggling institutions and low-income students. However, as the Martin Center has written before, it unfairly subsidizes nonresident students at the cost of North Carolina taxpayers.
  • In the past year, UNC has also raised the cap on out-of-state enrollment at some institutions and programs, including ECU, UNC Asheville, UNC Greensboro, UNC Pembroke, WCU, and all five of the state’s HBCUs. Raising the cap will almost certainly bring more out-of-state students to UNC institutions; however, UNC must take care to set nonresident tuition high enough to cover its costs. Otherwise, such policy changes transfer additional costs to North Carolina taxpayers.
  • The System has also relaxed admissions standards, seemingly to boost recruitment and enrollment. In the fall of 2020, UNC began a pilot program that temporarily changed minimum admissions requirements. During the pilot program, which is scheduled to end in 2025, the UNC System went from requiring both GPA (2.5 minimum) and SAT/ACT scores (880/17 minimum) to demanding either a 2.5 GPA or an SAT score of 1010 (or an ACT score of 19). During Covid, the System waived testing requirements entirely and has plans to keep that waiver in place until at least 2024. And now, the Board of Governors is considering eliminating the foreign-language requirement. Together, these changes represent a significant relaxation of standards, opening the doors to new, less-qualified applicants. At the same time, admissions rates across the System have increased.

While some of these changes are positive, better long-run solutions will be needed as demographic trends continue. The UNC System and the Board of Governors should look carefully at right-sizing universities for future needs, eliminating waste and bloat, and continuing to change the funding formula to incentivize student success instead of mere student enrollment.

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

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story asserted incorrectly that the UNC System had enacted a “border tuition” policy for nonresident students. We regret the error and have removed the line in question.]