(I've updated this post once below.)
The UNC System came out last week with its annual update on enrollment under the headline "UNC System announces second year of record enrollment." You should click the link to see the chart that lists each system school. If you're adverse to link-clicking, here are a few highlights:
• Enrollment at North Carolina's 16 public universities rose by 1.3 percent to almost 240,000, a record. That's roughly the population of Winston-Salem if you're like me and like some context with your numbers.
• N.C. State remains the state's largest university at 36,304 students. That's followed by UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC-Charlotte and East Carolina. (Mark this down: Charlotte is about a year or two from catching Carolina.)
• The two Greensboro schools both gained enrollment. UNCG was up 0.4 percent to 20,196, and A&T grew by 3.4 percent to 12,556. UNCG is the fifth-largest state university, and A&T is eighth (behind App State and UNCW).
• The three biggest percentage gainers were the N.C. Promise schools: UNC-Pembroke (up 7.9 percent), Elizabeth City State (up 5.7 percent) and Western Carolina (up 4.5 percent, same as UNC-Wilmington, which isn't a Promise school). This sort of growth isn't cheap: The state plans to spend $49 million in 2019-20 to cover lost tuition revenues and another $66 million the year after.
• The two factors that spurred this year's growth were a 2.6 percent jump in graduate enrollment and better retention of undergraduates. (For more context, about 20 percent of UNC System students are enrolled in master's, doctoral or professional programs.)
That's the good news. The concerning news comes in the final paragraph of the news release:
The number of incoming first-year students and transfers fell slightly, which coincides with a slowdown in the growth of high school graduating classes and a stronger job market.
Let's unpack this sentence.
First: The "slowdown in the growth of high school graduating classes" is a real thing and something that the higher education industry is dreading.
After rising rapidly in the 2000s (hello, millennials!), the number of high school graduates nationally and in North Carolina hasn't really changed much in the past five years. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (your go-to for all things related to high school demographics; lots more data here), the number of high school graduates will peak in 2025, then decline by eight percent through the early 2030s. North Carolina's decline won't be at steep — maybe about three percent, according to WICHE — but it's a concern nonetheless.
Second: The decline in the number of transfer students might be just as concerning.
In 2018, the UNC System got nearly 16,000 new students from community colleges, private N.C. colleges or out-of-state schools. (I'm excluding students who transfer from other UNC System schools in this quick analysis.) Most of these transfers — about 70 percent, according to my math — are from N.C. community colleges. Moreover, the number of CC-to-UNC transfers has grown by nearly 70 percent in the past decade. In 2018, five UNC schools (App, ECU, UNC-Charlotte, UNCG and UNC-Wilmington) welcomed more than 1,000 new community college transfers. N.C. community colleges are a big source of new students for UNC schools, in other words.
But persistent enrollment declines in the N.C. Community College System have become so dire that Education NC ran a recent story under the headline, "Will North Carolina still have 58 community colleges in 10 years?"
Since 2010, according to the Ed NC story, the community college system's high-water mark, full-time equivalent enrollment has declined 21 percent. More than half of N.C. colleges shrank over the past decade; almost a quarter of colleges saw declines of 20 percent. By my own count, 24 of the state's 58 community colleges have fewer than 3,000 students in their curriculum programs. (Curriculum programs include associate's degree and career and technical offerings but not continuing education.) Moreover, community college enrollment woes are a national thing as legislatures cut budgets and demand better performance.
N.C. community colleges are wrestling with a couple of things, as the Ed NC story points out. One is a good economy. (If folks can find work, they won't enroll in college.) The other is the declining population in rural areas, where most N.C. community colleges are located. Meanwhile, community colleges also bracing for the post-2025 demog-pocalypse.
If your goal is to run an efficient and cheaper community college system, 58 colleges in 100 N.C. counties might be too many. But if your goal is access, closing or combining campuses will shrink the system's reach. I also can't imagine any state lawmaker would want to lose a community college in his or her district. There are too many opportunities, decent jobs and a bit of prestige at stake.
The UNC System might indeed have a few more years of record enrollment ahead of it. But demographics and a shrinking pool of community college transfer students might be too much gravity to overcome. Stay tuned.
Update, 1:15 p.m. Tuesday: The N.C. Community College System would like me (and you, too) to know that there's actually some good enrollment-adjacent news: the number of apprentices and pre-apprentices in North Carolina is up 44 percent in the two years that the community college system took over the apprentice registration system (aka ApprenticeshipNC).
Here are more details on the growing ranks of apprentices from the community college system.