Politics & Government

These 3 NC colleges drastically dropped tuition. The result was like a ‘booster rocket.’

Undergraduate enrollment at Western Carolina University has risen 6.6 percent over last fall.
Undergraduate enrollment at Western Carolina University has risen 6.6 percent over last fall.

A new, lower tuition rate is drawing more students to three UNC campuses, resulting in record undergraduate enrollment growth this fall.

The NC Promise program, funded by the legislature at $51 million this year, allowed Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University to decrease their tuition to $1,000 a year for in-state undergraduates and $5,000 a year for out-of-state students.

Students are voting with their feet.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment has risen 19 percent at ECSU, 14 percent at UNCP and 6.6 percent at WCU, according to new figures released by the UNC system office. Among the first-year classes, ECSU and UNCP saw 20 percent increases, while WCU experienced a 10.5 percent jump.

But the biggest percentage growth came in the population of students who transferred from other schools. Transfer students increased 57 percent at ECSU, 56 percent at UNCP and 40 percent at Western Carolina.

The program, approved by the state legislature in 2016, provides a cheaper four-year university option. NC Promise has been promoted as an affordable opportunity for all North Carolinians, who are within 150 miles of a participating campus.

The program has been a significant boost for Elizabeth City State, which had experienced years of student declines and budget cuts. Enrollment is at a 5-year high at the historically black university in northeastern North Carolina.

“The increase in transfer numbers as well as the increase in out-of-state freshmen, especially from the Tidewater, Virginia area, are a direct result of NC Promise,” ECSU Interim Chancellor Karrie Dixon said in a statement.

Western Carolina was already on a growth trajectory before the tuition reduction. In seven of the past eight years, the student body has increased, WCU officials said in a news release last week.

At the same time, academic credentials have ratcheted up for incoming students. The WCU campus, in Cullowhee, now has 11,639 students, and the average high school grade point average reached 3.92 for this year’s first-year class, said Phil Cauley, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate enrollment. WCU crossed the 11,000-student mark for the first time in 2017.

Cauley said he didn’t know what to expect with the reduced tuition program. Most people didn’t know about it, and there was little “word-of-mouth” attention, he said in a phone interview. The buzz is growing now, though.

Applications were actually down by about one percent, but the yield, or the number of students who accepted offers of admission, soared by more than 200, or 2.2 percent. Cauley said the admissions team had predicted an increase in yield of 50-100 students.

“It was almost like a fuel injector, or a booster rocket,” Cauley said of NC Promise.

The interest from transfer students was greater than anyone expected, he said, and already transfer applications for January admission are up 45 percent. He said many of the transfers are community college students, who tend to more cost conscious.

UNC Pembroke Chancellor Robin Cummings said the university predicted a 500-student increase, but ended up with nearly 900 more.

“NC Promise exceeded our expectations by far,” Cummings said in an interview, adding, “It put our name out there, and we were able to brand ourselves in a very positive way.”

The campus saw a nearly 60 percent increase in students who came back to UNCP after dropping out, usually for economic or family reasons, he said.

The average SAT of incoming students rose by 88 points, Cummings said, and ACT and grade point averages also improved.

The NC Promise price cut only applies to tuition, not other expenses such as fees, books, room and meal plans. The total annual price for North Carolina students is $14,385 at ECSU, $15,156 at UNCP and $16,036 at WCU, according to information on ncpromise.com, the website for the program.

Dixon, the interim chancellor at ECSU, said the program can help make a four-year college degree attainable for more students.

“We are incredibly grateful that the NC General Assembly acted to put an initiative in place to address access and affordability, making a quality education available for students from all backgrounds and walks of life,” Dixon’s statement said.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill
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