Welcome to the 2019-20 academic year, which started last week for most of the schools I write about and begins this week for a couple of others (Wake Forest on Monday and Elon on Tuesday).

You don’t have to look too hard to see a few new things on local college campuses. I mean, it’s impossible to hide a four-story engineering building that’s going up along one of Greensboro’s busiest streets. But there’s plenty more going on behind the brick walls and oak trees of academia.

Here’s a look at some of the new things you’ll see at local college campuses this year. I’ve also highlighted a few state and national trends that bear watching as well. Let’s dive in.

Construction

The two biggest construction projects in the works are happening a mile in either direction from my office.

UNCG is putting up its Nursing and Instructional Building on the site of the former McIver Buildings (plural). That building won’t be done until sometime in 2021.

N.C. A&T is building its Engineering Research and Innovation Center on the corner of East Market and Dudley, where the Hayes-Taylor YMCA used to stand. It’s scheduled to open in late 2021.

Elsewhere, High Point University has opened its new undergraduate science building — and planetarium — and continues work on its basketball arena/conference center/hotel complex. Elon University expects to open its on-campus hotel at the start of 2020. And GTCC's Medlin Campus Center is closed for renovations through late 2020.

Guilford College continues its campuswide improvements. Milner Hall has reopened after year-long top-to-bottom renovations. (Get a good look at its mid-century modern vibe here.) A third freshman dorm (Bryan) will get the same extensive makeover during 2019-20.

And because you need to know where to find coffee on a college campus, two local schools have some new coffee options. Guilford's new standalone coffee shop opened in April. And Greensboro College will have a coffee shop inside its new on-campus student center (which is moving back into its old home, affectionately called "The Stu" by the college's old guard.) The student center and coffee shop are scheduled to open in late September.

New leaders

A couple of local schools have new presidents: Suzanne Walsh started at Bennett on Aug. 1, and Anthony Clarke will become GTCC’s new president on or before Nov. 1.

This is Walsh’s first college presidency. Her higher education comes largely from her previous work with the Gates and Lumina foundations. This is Clarke’s second presidency. He’s leaving Southeastern Community College in Columbus County, where he has been president since 2014.

The Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (the joint UNCG-A&T venture) has a relatively new dean. Sherine Obare, formerly at Western Michigan University, started work during the spring semester. 

Expect some turnover at the top at some UNC System schools. UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina, Fayetteville State and UNC School of the Arts all have interim chancellors, and the UNC System president also is an interim. UNC-Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois announced in July that 2019-20 will be his last year.

Enrollment

All colleges and universities keep close track of enrollment because of the budget implications. But a couple of local schools made some significant changes that could have a profound effect on enrollment.

Greensboro College cut tuition and fees by more than a third effective this fall. A lot of private schools advertise high prices but often charge just half of that or less. (The process is called discounting; lots of higher ed folks are nervously watching their discount rates grow to what some experts believe are unsustainable levels.) Greensboro College says its new published tuition rate ($18,500 per year, excluding fees, room, board and books) takes some of the mystery out of paying for college.

The New York Times wrote about tuition resets earlier this month — they're a small but growing practice in higher ed — but managed to overlook both Greensboro College and Belmont Abbey College, which seems pretty happy with its tuition reset.

Guilford College, meanwhile, overhauled its curriculum, academic calendar and academic and career advising. Other colleges and universities have done pieces and parts of what Guilford launched this fall, but best I can tell the Guilford Edge is unique. I wrote about the Edge here. Inside Higher Ed, which also looked into Guilford’s new approach in July, said "(i)t's hard to overstate the change happening at Guilford College right now."

Both schools have stated reasons for their new approaches — more accurate pricing at Greensboro, and re-imaging higher education in Guilford’s case. But let’s be clear about all of this: There are a lot of private colleges out there that all look more or less the same, and Greensboro and Guilford are trying bold new moves to help them stand out a bit. I'll be watching both changes.

At Bennett College, meanwhile, enrollment is among its pressing issues. Enrollment stood at about 460 students last fall before dropping down to about 400 in the spring. Before she left, former president Phyllis Worthy Dawkins told me that Bennett would be in pretty good shape if it could get to — and keep — about 800 students. I’m hoping to meet with Bennett’s new president in late September, and you can bet I’ll ask about enrollment.

Accreditation

I’ll be watching to see if Bennett makes any progress this year toward gaining accreditation from TRACS, which appears to be Bennett's Plan B if things don’t work out with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. SACSCOC revoked Bennett’s accreditation in February, but restored it provisionally when Bennett sued.

Salem College in Winston-Salem could get good accreditation news in December. SACSCOC put Salem on probation in June 2018 over financial concerns. In June 2019, the commission extended Salem’s probation for another six months and told the women’s college that it wanted to revisit its case in December.

The reason I say Salem “could get good news” is that (a) the commission last June said Salem remained short of its standards in just one area (it had been four), and (b) the commission usually waits a year between reviews, and a come-back-in-six-months message suggests that SACSCOC thinks Salem might be close to resolving its issues.

That said, I’ve learned never to make predictions about what the commission might do, so who knows what this means, right?

Housing at N.C. A&T

When UNCG decided it needed more room to house students, it bought up land south of West Lee Street (now West Gate City Boulevard) and built the Spartan Village residential and retail complex.

It looks like A&T is following a similar tack as enrollment and demand for campus housing grows. A&T has slowly been buying up property north of Bluford Street for years. The first project scheduled for this area is a 420-bed dorm, a project A&T hopes to start within the next few months.

Chancellor Harold Martin told me and other reporters last week that A&T (through its real estate foundation) plans to buy more apartments near campus. A&T purchased part of one complex and all of a second smaller complex in the past year. The extra apartment inventory gives A&T more beds for its students as well as more control over leasing, safety and maintenance at these complexes.

If A&T is going to grow to 14,000 students by 2023, and more and more students want to live on or close to campus, look for A&T to keep adding student housing.

The state budget

Wednesday will mark the two-month anniversary of Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the state budget produced by a Republican-controlled legislature. Short term, UNCG, A&T and the rest of the UNC System schools will soldier on with their budgets from 2018-19. (The lack of a state budget doesn’t cut off state funding; it just means that there’s no new state funding.) But the proposed budget has a bunch of things that both schools want — library renovations for UNCG, a building renovation and more doctoral faculty funding for A&T, pay raises at both campuses and a few other things.

Neither side seems interested in negotiating outside of press releases and social media — the governor's latest press release is titled in part "GOP looks for new ways not to negotiate," for instance — so this budget stalemate might continue for a while. My money's on "indefinitely."

A crisis of confidence?

A couple of recent episodes exposed a dark underbelly of higher education. One was the national Varsity Blues admission scandal, the one where rich people were bribing college coaches, faking applications and cheating on tests to get their clumsy and underachieving children into elite schools as student-athletes. The other was a recent report on some well-to-do families in the Chicago suburbs who had given up legal guardianship of their teenage children so they could qualify for more college financial aid. 

Both stories suggest a crisis of confidence, that somehow the college admissions and college aid are rigged in favor of *waves hand* someone else. But never mind that far more children from wealthy families go to college than children from low-income families — that's the real scandal in higher ed, according to this recent story in The Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the price of college continues to rise, people are going deeper in debt to get a degree, and a Pew Research Center survey that came out last week found that only half of Americans have a positive view of higher ed — down 13 points in just four years. Most of that drop came from Republicans and right-leaning independents, nearly 60 percent of whom hold a negative view of colleges and universities. That’s a 22-point swing in four years.

High prices are the No. 1 reason for the decline in support across all political persuasions. Among Republicans, their top beef is the idea that professors (presumably a pack of raging liberals) are bringing their social and political views into the classroom. I'm not sure how these people know that, as most American adults, some of whom Pew presumably surveyed, haven’t been in or near a college classroom in years, if ever. But if your media diet is heavy on websites like Campus Reform and College Fix that serve up big helpings of the latest liberal campus outrage, that finding makes perfect sense.

Whether any of these critiques are true or not, this loss of confidence is something that higher ed has to get its collective arms around. Higher ed is in the perception business — your life will be so much better in so many ways if you get your degree here! — and these sort of attitudes could be bad for business.

Have something to say about the blog post above? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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