CHAPEL HILL — An always controversial debate has resurfaced among UNC system leaders – whether to enroll more out-of-state students at North Carolina’s public universities.
On Thursday, the UNC Board of Governors discussed whether and how to increase the numbers of non-North Carolina residents at some campuses. The goals, UNC leaders say, are to boost the overall talent pool in North Carolina, to strengthen historically minority campuses, and to grow border universities that have the space to accommodate more students and the ability to draw from neighboring states.
“This is really about attracting talent to North Carolina potentially, rather than raising revenue,” said Peter Hans, chairman of the board.
The possibility comes as the UNC system faces a new round of budget cuts and moves toward a target of raising college degree attainment in North Carolina.
But the out-of-state issue has historically been an explosive one in a state where the enrollment of non-North Carolinian college freshmen has long been capped at 18 percent at the public campuses. In the past, the idea of increasing out-of-staters has met with public scorn and political opposition.
Now, though, there is new ammunition to bolster the arguments of those who want to loosen the 18 percent cap. The UNC system has data to show that 45 percent of out-of-staters are employed in North Carolina three years after graduation, suggesting that the graduates contribute to the state’s economic development.
Also, some campuses are having trouble attracting enough qualified North Carolina students in an era when minimum admission requirements have ratcheted up.
For example, last fall, N.C. A&T State University’s out-of-state population far exceeded the cap, growing to 31.4 percent. The university said it had underestimated the number of accepted out-of-staters who would enroll, while in-state students had more options and chose to enroll elsewhere in greater numbers. The UNC board already had exempted N.C. A&T’s engineering program from the cap.
“We have more opportunities for students who are interested in engineering than we are able to extract from high school graduates here in North Carolina,” said N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin.
One idea on the table is to decrease tuition for out-of-state students so that campuses with space can lure students from nearby states. Gov. Pat McCrory and the state House have proposed out-of-state tuition increases of 12.3 percent at high-demand campuses such as N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill, and 6 percent at others.
In the coming months, the board will look at five strategies for changing the mix of in-state and out-of-state students:
• Lowering tuition at historically minority campuses to 110 percent of the cost of education.
• Lowering tuition for campuses near the borders of other states.
• Raising the cap at historically minority campuses.
• Maintaining a UNC system-wide cap of 18 percent but allowing some campuses to exceed 18 percent while others naturally are well below the cap.
• Excluding international students from the 18 percent limit calculation.
‘Facing some competition’
The discussion is preliminary, and no consensus emerged Thursday. UNC President Tom Ross said if any approach is adopted, it should be done only on a trial basis for a few years, so the system can study its impact.
Ross pointed out that some states, such as Tennessee, recruit North Carolina students from border counties and give them in-state tuition rates.
“The point is, we’re facing some competition in these areas,” he said.
There was skepticism by some board members. Some suggested it would be difficult to decide which campuses could exceed the cap and by how much. Others wondered about the financial implications of lowering out-of-state tuition at a time when budgets are squeezed.
And while UNC system administrators emphasized that any loosening of the cap would be accomplished without reducing seats for qualified North Carolinians, at least one board member expressed worry that state residents would lose opportunities if more out-of-state students come to the state’s campuses.
For example, the system estimated that an additional 1,869 out-of-state students could qualify for admission at UNC-Chapel Hill by scoring in the top 25th percentile on the SAT. Competition is already fierce for seats at UNC-CH among North Carolina resident students.
Board member Frank Grainger said he supports more out-of-state students at border campuses but not NCSU and UNC-CH, “when we’ve got hundreds and thousands of in-state students that want to go to one of these universities and we bring in out-of-state kids to take up those slots.”
He added, “I just think that we’ve got to be real careful if we decide to move ahead on this out-of-state thing.”
‘Awful lot of upside’
Board member Paul Fulton said many campuses were well below the cap, so it’s unlikely that the system as a whole would exceed an overall cap of 18 percent.
“It’s hard for me to see much downside in it, but I see an awful lot of upside,” he said. “To me, the important thing (is) it will definitely enhance the quality of education our kids receive on these campuses. These out-of-state students contribute, ... and to find that almost half of them stay here is reassuring.”
Some changes would require only board action, while others would require legislation. Half of the UNC board will turn over this summer, with new members taking office in July.
Thursday was only the beginning of the discussion, Hans said, and he stressed that North Carolina students remain the system’s top priority.
“My intent is to foster open debate about new ideas,” he said. “Some we may follow and others we may discard. But it’s imperative for us not to be frozen in place but rather weigh different approaches.”