CHAPEL HILL — The UNC Board of Governors showed little appetite Thursday for a proposal to admit more out-of-state students at some public campuses experiencing waning enrollment.
The UNC system is considering a pilot program to raise the current 18 percent cap on out-of-state freshmen at institutions that have traditionally served minority students during an era of flat or declining enrollment.
Five of six minority campuses, already absorbing state budget cuts, also are dealing with deficits because of a drop in students. The largest declines are at Winston-Salem State and Elizabeth City State universities, which each suffered a loss of more than $2 million in enrollment revenue above the budget cut handed down by the legislature.
Overall, the UNC system projected growth this fall and received $29 million systemwide to accommodate greater enrollment.
One board member suggested it is time to talk about consolidating some of the 16 university campuses – a controversial idea that was floated by some legislators earlier this year.
Harry Smith Jr. of Washington said no one building a public higher education system in North Carolina today would have so many campuses.
“Time and time again, the world-class students are going to try to get in the performing campuses, and then you’ve got these campuses that are not performing and therefore are having to try to do what they’ve got to do to get their headcount up, which may be out-of-state kids,” Smith said. “At some point I think the conversation has got to be had about consolidation of the 16 campuses.”
Board member Hannah Gage of Wilmington said while lifting the cap would be a creative way for campuses with capacity to add students, it would be a short-term fix.
“The larger question in my mind is not necessarily do we need to consolidate,” Gage said, “but ... do we need to reinvent or reimagine some of the campuses that are struggling?”
Across the nation, for example, campuses have changed their missions to cater to community college transfers, she said.
“Some of that should be part of the conversation before we ramp up the out-of-state numbers,” Gage said.
Through the years, the UNC board has discussed the merits of raising the percentage of out-of-state students, which now is limited to 18 percent of entering freshmen (except at the UNC School of the Arts and the engineering program at N.C. A&T State).
Public universities in other states have admitted more out-of-staters, who pay higher tuition that boosts the bottom line. Research shows that out-of-state students who come to North Carolina for college tend to stay and contribute positively to the economy, UNC officials say.
“There is clear evidence that there would be great return not only to the institution but to the system and the state,” said N.C. A&T Chancellor Harold Martin.
Martin said A&T benefited tremendously from the exemption of its engineering program from the 18 percent cap. More graduates have moved into Fortune 500 companies in recent years. They then give back to the university and spread the word about A&T. That, in turn, leads to more interest from high school students outside North Carolina, Martin said.
Last year, the campus overshot its out-of-state enrollment, ending up with 31 percent of its freshman class from outside North Carolina. Because of higher minimum academic standards systemwide, the pool of qualified North Carolinians has declined, Martin said. Meanwhile, the campus recruited top out-of-state students, and a larger share decided to come.
This year, N.C. A&T is the only historically black public university to experience an increase in money for enrollment.
More out-of-state students can be a good thing for the state, some board members said.
“I think they add great value, and many of them stay and become productive citizens,” said John Fennebresque of Charlotte.
UNC President Tom Ross said nearly half of the students who attend universities in the state settle here. “There is an economic benefit to North Carolina and to businesses in North Carolina by attracting talent that stays here,” he said.
But the debate about whether to admit more out-of-staters has not gained much momentum in North Carolina, where taxpayer support of higher education is strong and where the state constitution promises a college education free of expense, “as far as practicable.”
Marty Kotis III, a board member from Greensboro, said he is concerned that the latest proposal could violate that constitutional guarantee.
“I think we have to continue to remember the citizens of the state and why this university exists the way it is and why it’s not private,” he said.
To shift the focus could lead to a more elite university system that shuts out North Carolinians, he said. “I think if you put this out to a poll of the voters today, it would be 90 percent against increasing the out-of-state students.”
Henry Hinton, a board member from Greenville, said the board needed to tread carefully about the message it sends to the legislature.
“It does strike me that as we try to stop the bleeding on the budget,” Hinton said, “politically this could be a real hot potato.”