Appalachian State is setting its sights on a fall 2020 enrollment of 20,000 students, with Chancellor Sheri Everts and other administrators noting earlier this month that continued growth is vital to the institution’s financial sustainability and its standing across the state.
Administrators spoke to the Appalachian State Board of Trustees at its Sept. 13 quarterly meeting about the university’s growth and retention metrics and strategies amid a climate of uncertainty for higher education.
“We are approaching a landmark enrollment rate of 20,000,” Everts said in her remarks to trustees. “Reaching our goal of 20,000 students will not only bring in the tuition revenue we need, it will also bolster our position in Chapel Hill and in Raleigh.
“Funding is tight for academic institutions, and the landscape for higher education is uncertain. We have all seen the recent headlines about campuses merging or closing their doors, and surveys and studies tell us this trend is likely to continue.”
This fall, Appalachian reached a total enrollment of 19,280, a 0.9 percent increase over fall 2018’s enrollment of 19,108, according to figures from the University of North Carolina system. Cindy Barr, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at Appalachian, noted in the trustees’ Academic Affairs Committee meeting that this semester, the university’s main campus enrollment topped 18,000 for the first time (Appalachian’s total enrollment number includes students enrolled online and in other off-campus programs).
Hitting 20,000 in fall 2020 would mean an increase of 720 students, or 3.7 percent, over this year’s enrollment, Appalachian State spokesperson Megan Hayes said.
Systemwide, total fall 2019 enrollment at UNC’s 16 public university campuses increased by 1.3 percent over last year, for a total of 239,987 students, according to a Sept. 18 announcement from the system. Undergraduate enrollment grew by 0.9 percent, with graduate students increasing at a greater rate, at 2.6 percent.
Ten campuses grew their enrollments by rates ranging from 0.4 percent (UNC-Greensboro) to 7.9 percent (UNC-Pembroke), while the six campuses with shrinking enrollments declined by rates of -0.2 percent (East Carolina) to -4.3 percent (UNC-Asheville).
“At a time when attendance at other universities is declining, our enrollment continues to break records,” UNC System Interim President Bill Roper said in a statement. “We are delivering unparalleled education that is more affordable and more accessible to more people.”
But the number of incoming first-year students and transfers fell slightly across the UNC system, which coincides with a slowdown in the growth of high school graduating classes and a stronger job market, the system said.
Appalachian’s first-year class grew to 3,501 (up from 3,445 in fall 2018), but, Barr said, “We were hoping to be closer to 3,650 this fall.”
“Appalachian is one of the few in the system to have growth,” Barr said. “There is a market disruption in North Carolina.”
The number of new transfer students fell from 1,568 students in fall 2018 to 1,449, according to data from Appalachian’s office of Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning. Barr attributed the decline in part to market competition with the UNC system’s three “NC Promise” universities, which guarantee tuition costs of $500 per semester. The three NC Promise campuses — UNC Pembroke, Elizabeth City State and Western Carolina — grew total enrollments by rates of 7.9 percent, 5.7 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively, according to UNC system data.
Of 16,579 applications received by Appalachian for the 2019-20 term, the university accepted 12,779, according to Alexis Pope, director of admissions.
Nationwide, higher education leaders have been calling attention to a decline in birth rates and what that trend could portend for higher ed institutions.
Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, predicted last year that the college-going population would drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter, according to a September 2018 article by The Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on education.
“When the financial crisis hit in 2008, young people viewed that economic uncertainty as a cause for reducing fertility,” Grawe told the publication. “The number of kids born from 2008 to 2011 fell precipitously. Fast forward 18 years to 2026 and we see that there are fewer kids reaching college-going age.”
Figures and projections from the National Center for Education Statistics and other groups indicate that high school graduate numbers have already begun to stagnate in recent years.
Putting additional pressures on UNC university budgets are state appropriations that haven’t kept up with inflation, according to a study by the left-leaning think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which found that after adjusting for inflation, total per-student spending on higher education in North Carolina fell by 20 percent between 2008 and 2018.
And in recent years, the state legislature and UNC system Board of Governors have enacted policies limiting campuses’ ability to increase their tuition rates. Tuition costs at Appalachian have remained at $4,242 per year for the past three years.
“We have to grow now,” said Lee Barnes, trustee. “To meet our budget, we have to have paying customers, and that’s what enrollment does.”
Barr said that Appalachian State’s enrollment and admissions staff are implementing several strategies to meet the university’s enrollment goals.
“If birth rates are dropping, how do we get a bigger share of graduates to come to Appalachian?” Barr said.
Appalachian is adding a new admissions counselor and expanding opportunities for campus visits, including Saturday tours. Applicants will be allowed to self-report their SAT scores — to be verified by the university later — which will lead to more completed applications, Barr said. If the policy had been in place this year, an estimated 600 more applications could have been submitted by the early action deadline, she said, including more racially under-represented and low-income students.
Barr said the university was also looking at providing scholarship offers and financial aid packages to families earlier in the admissions process.
Trustee Charles Murray asked how the university would accomplish its enrollment growth goals without compromising on its admissions standards. Barr replied that while the university continues to consider traditional metrics such as GPA and SAT scores, it has adopted a holistic review process for applicants that takes other measures into account, such as student activities, interests, extenuating circumstances and resiliency.
“Our mission is to serve the citizens of North Carolina,” Barr said. “If we see a small shift in our academic profile, it does not mean those students won’t be successful here.”
Michael Behrent, chair of the Faculty Senate, expressed concerns from faculty members about the potential implications for university employees if the campus isn’t able to reach its goals.
“Looking forward, there is that concern about the impact that this kind of growth could have on student quality,” Behrent said. “Also, among faculty, there is anxiety about the university’s need, because of financial reasons ... to grow in this very competitive environment to get students that we seem to be entering.”
Provost Darrell Kruger noted that with steady increases in enrollment, Appalachian has continued to invest in full-time faculty positions and has maintained a 16:1 student-to-faculty ratio.
According to The Hechinger Report, “Grawe argues that colleges might be able to avoid closures and budget shortfalls if they can reduce their dropout rates and focus on keeping students — and their tuition dollars — on campus.”
“Expect more colleges to launch ‘student retention’ and ‘student success’ initiatives,” the article stated.
The UNC system pointed to improved retention rates in this week’s announcement: “A major factor contributing to record enrollment is improved student retention across the system,” it said. “The data suggest stronger retention of students at UNC system institutions and other improvements that help students graduate in a timely fashion.”
Appalachian’s retention rate (the percentage of first-year students who remain enrolled a year later) is 88 percent, Everts said, which is up from 87.2 percent last year, well above the national average and third overall in the UNC system.