Despite The Pandemic, UNC System Enrollment Ticks Up

Sep 18, 2020

UNC Wilmington students Taylor Daughtry and Cassidy Montgomery stroll across campus wearing masks, with their lunches in tow, Sept. 2020.
Credit Liz Schlemmer

Despite the pandemic, the UNC System reached record-high enrollment this fall for the third year in a row —  and that's good news for the university system's bottom line.

Overall, the UNC System saw a 1% increase from last year's enrollment.

"In any other year, that might be a completely ordinary bit of news," said UNC System President Peter Hans, "And yet, in this year of unprecedent disruption across our state — across our world — I think that's an extraordinary achievement."

Hans told the UNC Board of Governors on Thursday that he considers it "a vote of confidence" in the UNC System.

Half of North Carolina's public universities saw record enrollment this semester, largely fueled by their graduate programs. Overall, undergraduate enrollment held steady and only a few universities, including UNC Greensboro, saw slight declines in total enrollment.

Undergraduate enrollment was up 0.2% system-wide, while graduate enrollment increased by 4%.

Professor Kevin McClure studies higher education at UNC Wilmington, and said he was pleasantly surprised at the fall enrollment figures. Enrollment boosts university finances, because it is an important factor in state funding, tuition and other revenue streams.

"It's certainly good news, welcome news, given that there was some pessimism around what enrollments were going to look like," McClure said. "But I think the notion of uncertainty still applies down the road."

McClure said he wouldn't be surprised if enrollment starts to decline as early as this spring, since many students had decided on their fall plans before the pandemic hit.

Associate professor Amanda Griffith teaches higher education finance in the economics department at Wake Forest University, and offers a different perspective.

"I don't find the trend too surprising, given the flat tuition at UNC schools, and the very high quality of education available, particularly at the flagships," Griffith said.

Griffith noted that during periods of high unemployment, colleges and universities often see enrollment rise as workers seek to learn new skills.

While high enrollment is generally good for university finances, Griffith said increased enrollment during a recession could also be a financial strain, as many students will be in greater need of financial aid.