Returning students might notice bigger crowds this fall at Western Carolina University, UNC Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University; enrollment is up at all three. Officials credit the state’s new NC Promise plan, which lowers tuition for in-state students at the three campuses to $500 per semester.
“One of the things that’s always hard to see or hard to relate to for some of us who work at colleges, if we didn’t go through it, is talking to a student who really wants to go to college, who’s admitted, who just cannot afford it,” said Elizabeth City State’s Associate Director of Admissions Darius Eure.
Elizabeth City State, a historically black university, has struggled with student enrollment in recent years, in part because of changes to federal loan programs. At a low point, the number of students there was down more than 40 percent.
This fall, it’s up nearly 20 percent. Eure attributes much of that increase to the NC Promise plan. He said it’s brought out-of-pocket degree costs down by thousands of dollars.
“Some people they have that perception that...it’s cheaper so just anybody will look,” Eure said. “It’s not cheaper, in the essence of just costing less money. It’s just a better value for the education that students receive.”
University officials across the state were skeptical of NC Promise when it was first announced. They worried the lower tuition rate would starve their institutions of revenue. But legislators backed the program with enough funding to make up the difference. And so far it seems to be a boon -- not just for the quantity of students.
“I’m told it’s very difficult, almost impossible, to increase your number of students and the academic profile at the same time,” said Robin Cummings, chancellor of UNC Pembroke, where enrollment is up 14 percent.
“In our case we accomplished both,” Cummings said. “Our average SAT went up 88 points. That’s phenomenal.”
Western Carolina University also saw increases in student test scores and average GPA’s, said Phil Cauley, Western’s assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate enrollment. He said he’s hoping the lowered costs that brought these bright students to campus will keep them there.
“Suddenly the fact that they’re not going to graduate with as much college debt is going to hopefully positively impact retention, graduation rates,” Cauley said. “They’re going to keep on keeping on.”