Not long ago, the notion that North Carolina's state's public university system might limit access to its campuses was at best far-fetched. To limit enrollment was to fracture one of the core tenets upon which the University of North Carolina system has been built.
But now, as budget cuts continue to chomp away at campuses, system leaders are starting to make the case for capping or even lowering enrollment.
"It's the elephant in the room," said J. Bradley Wilson, a former chairman of the UNC system's Board of Governors. "We've always said we want to keep the doors open as wide as we can. The question is, can we afford that anymore?"
The system was built on the inextricably linked ideals of access and affordability.
But after four years and $620 million in budget cuts, the public university system is scrambling to temper proposed cuts to its 2011-12 budget that could approach $500 million.
A cut that big would change the game, university officials say. No longer able to nibble around the edges, the UNC system and its campuses say it would prompt significant structural change and some very hard, undesirable decisions.
"If we end up with 14 or 15 percent cuts this year, we'll have to decide whether protecting quality is more important than growth," said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors. "The only thing that makes sense is to consciously say 'we can't grow anymore.' "
The state subsidizes the cost of every North Carolinian's education at a public university, and the UNC system requested $45 million in additional money to accommodate enrollment growth next year. Though the House budget would meet that request, Gov. Bev Perdue's spending plan counters with just $23 million.
The Board of Governors hasn't formally discussed the notion of capping or reducing enrollment. But now may be a good time to do so.
After a decade of rapid growth at many public universities, expansion is slowing, and some campuses already are reducing enrollment strategically in hopes of improving the quality of graduates.
And the number of expected graduates from the state's high schools is expected to plateau for the next couple of years, which may help UNC officials justify the change in enrollment philosophy.
The public university system, which emphasized aggressive growth at many of its campuses throughout much of the 2000s, has seen a slowing of late.
Enrollment across the system grew just slightly: a 1.2 percent increase to about 211,000 students whose educations receive state subsidy. Twelve campuses grew from the previous year, but by no more than 557, or 1.6 percent, at N.C. State University. Fayetteville State University, UNC Greensboro, Western Carolina University and Winston-Salem State University reduced enrollment. UNC-Chapel Hill's total enrollment grew by 474 last year; UNC Charlotte added 362.
Those that are growing are doing it differently. The total number of new freshmen dropped 1.9 percent in fall 2010, but the number of transfer students swelled as campuses targeted better-prepared students.
Consider the current strategy at N.C. Central University in Durham: In the fall, that campus expects to enroll about 100 fewer freshmen than the 1,350 it welcomed last year - a move officials hope ultimately saves money and boosts graduation rates.
Enrolling fewer freshmen eases a campus housing crunch and relieves some stress on remedial programs that many first-year students need.
While reducing its freshman enrollment, NCCU is partnering with local community colleges to find students with two years of college and better study skills. In an era of limited funds, it makes sense to focus on students who are better bets to graduate, NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms said.
"Fundamentally, I'm opposed to limited access to education," he said. "Pragmatically, if there are limited resources, you have to make some sacrifices. I'd rather maintain a modicum of success while retaining some level of quality."
Access is being restricted for some UNC-CH graduate students as well. There, the nursing school is cutting next year's enrollment by 25 percent, and the school of social work has decided not to accept two new classes of master's degree students to an online program serving the western part of the state.
Of course, if fewer students can attend public universities, they have to go somewhere. For many, a likely destination is one of the state's 58 community colleges, a system already straining under a staggering increase in demand over the past several years.
Even as its budget was being cut, the state's community college system saw enrollment increase 25 percent over the last three years.
And because community colleges have an open-door policy, some campuses have scrambled to keep up with demand.
Edgecombe Community College, for example, had to rent 100 extra chairs last year because demand was so high, said Sharon Morrissey, vice president of academic affairs and student services for the community college system. "Students were pouring in," she said.
If the UNC system turns students away, the community colleges may need to rent more chairs. They may need more rooms, too.
"I think capacity will be an issue," Morrissey said. "We'll keep trying to do everything we can. Eventually, you reach a breaking point."
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