A state House spending plan unveiled this week dares to consider an idea that North Carolina higher education leaders have opposed for years: limiting access to public universities.
Restricting growth to 1 percent across the 17 UNC campuses would likely mean no room for thousands of potential students. And it would be an unprecedented change for a university system that has long prided itself on its accessibility.
"Limiting access goes against everything we try to do within our university," said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors. "It looks like a big step backwards."
A special provision in the House's education spending plan would set the 1 percent enrollment growth limit in 2011-12. It would be a cumulative cap, so the UNC system would have to figure out how to balance growth among its individual campuses, officials said.
The measure, if enacted, could greatly decrease the number of new students. For example, UNC planners expect to add about 4,900 new students across the system this fall. If the system faced the 1 percent limit then, just 2,200 of them could enroll.
William Friday, the UNC president emeritus who spent 30 years running the system, said North Carolina has never considered enrollment limits and shouldn't start now.
"We put a very high premium on advanced work, and you don't get that by limiting access," Friday said. "It's self-defeating if your emphasis is on economic growth and economic development."
The provision is part of a spending bill recommending $175 million in new cuts to the UNC system, a far larger reduction than those offered in spending plans from Gov. Bev Perdue and the state Senate.
House education budget writer Ray Rapp said the cap is an attempt to get a handle on university enrollment, which has proven unpredictable and tough to pay for in recent years.
In 2007, the university system asked first for $39.8 million to pay for the next year's enrollment growth, but later needed $34.6 million more when revised numbers projected far more students.
More recent projections have been better. UNC officials initially asked for $53.4 million to pay for about 4,485 new students for the 2010-11 year, but later asked for $5.6 million more for 440 additional students.
"We're trying to keep it as accessible and affordable as it has always been, but we're trying to get a handle on planning," said Rapp, a Democrat from Mars Hill. "It can't just be an open checkbook."
The university system enrolled 222,322 full-, part-time and distance education students last fall, a 3.1 percent increase over the previous year.
Trying to shrink
Across the nation, cash-strapped public universities have limited, capped or even reduced enrollment to cut costs. The 35,000-student University of Florida wants to shrink by 4,000 students. And the California State University system, with 23 campuses and 450,000 students, is trying to reduce enrollment by 40,000 students over two years.
"It really hurts to turn away students," said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "But I'd imagine almost every state has had the discussion."
North Carolina gives the UNC system about $12,000 for each full-time student, so slowing growth -- and enrolling thousands fewer students -- could save millions at a time when legislators are looking everywhere for savings. It's hard to determine just how much the state would save, because many rejected students would likely end up at community colleges, which also are funded by taxpayers.
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