As enrollment slides again at Elizabeth City State University, UNC President Margaret Spellings has formed a working group to assist the campus with its student numbers, academic programs and finances.
ECSU announced Tuesday that its fall enrollment this year is 1,350 – below the anticipated target of 1,500 students. The size of the student body has dropped by 59 percent since 2010, prompting repeated budget and staff cuts.
The new working group will be led by ECSU’s chancellor, Thomas Conway. It will include senior leaders from the campus and the UNC system’s General Administration, as well as members of both the UNC Board of Governors and the campus Board of Trustees.
Spellings was careful not to characterize the new group as a management takeover. She stressed that Conway would be in charge.
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“Chancellor Conway has distinguished himself as a trusted leader committed to the mission and promise of ECSU,” she said in a news release. “I have all confidence that he will take the reins of this newly formed working group, and lead the group’s work in determining the right solutions to these challenges, while building a more competitive ECSU that we all know it can and must be.”
But it’s unclear exactly how the new group will seek to make ECSU more competitive or what changes are in store for the university in the northeastern corner of North Carolina.
Conway said the working group can help vet ideas and implement them on a fast track. UNC system leaders need more evidence of what the campus is doing to turn things around, he added.
“We’ve got to pull out all stops, and I think it’s appropriate to go ahead and initiate this group and I’ll be working directly with them,” he said. “I’m real clear, my goal is to turn them into informed advocates for Elizabeth City [State].”
A newly implemented enrollment system uncovered shortcomings in the university’s processes, including its communication with applicants. New software should improve the university’s operations going forward, Conway said.
Conway said he had been overly optimistic in setting this year’s target enrollment, and the figure is about where the university would be using standard projections.
“It’s a reality check for me and the university,” he said. “We learned from it. We’re looking at new markets that we can identify but hadn’t moved into yet. So we’re still confident that we’re going to be able to grow.”
In 2018, ECSU will be part of the NC Promise Tuition Plan, along with UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University. The lower-price idea, devised by the legislature this year, set in-state tuition at $500 per semester at the campuses and out-of-state tuition at $2,500 per semester. Tuition is only one part of the total tab, though; other student costs include fees, room, food and books.
Conway said he hopes the lower tuition rate will generate some buzz and make ECSU competitive with Virginia schools for students from across the state border. The campus is also looking at programs that draw older adults returning for a degree.
ECSU has struggled not only with enrollment but also with bad audits and administrative turnover. Audits released earlier this year showed questionable spending and hiring, improperly awarded financial aid and the admission of students who didn’t qualify.
Conway, a veteran administrator at N.C. State University and Fayetteville State University, arrived at ECSU in January after the departure of the former chancellor, Stacey Franklin Jones. She left after a little more than a year on the job.