Visitors to campus are witnessing a construction boom. The unprecedented bond referendum approved by N.C. voters nearly six years ago — along with other state and private funds as well as overhead receipts — is fueling one of the most ambitious growth plans in U.S. higher education. Now, as construction projects move toward completion, questions remain about just how many students Carolina can and should enroll.
By the fall after my classmates and I graduated in 1970, Carolina’s total enrollment was 18,130, with 12,315 of those being undergraduates. By last fall, the total enrollment was 27,276; of those, 16,764 were undergraduates. Provost Bernadette Gray-Little gave a comprehensive and timely review of Carolina’s present plans for enrollment growth at the Board of Trustees’ recent summer retreat, and her report makes clear that growing the student population without compromising Carolina’s quality or adversely affecting the student experience will remain challenging.
Many large public research institutions realized too late that growing without the resources to support that growth compromised quality, and once excellence is lost, it is very difficult to reclaim. At the first meeting of a 1998 Enrollment Task Force on which I served — appointed by then-Chancellor Michael Hooker ’69 and led by then-Provost Dick Richardson — we learned that Carolina’s enrollment growth from 19,160 in 1971 to 24,463 in 1994 was “unintended growth,” largely resulting from improved retention rates. The freshman class that entered in fall 1971 had a four-year graduation rate of 48.9 percent while the 1993 freshman class had a four-year graduation rate of 63 percent. The four-year graduation rate for the class that entered in 2001 was 71 percent.
Carolina’s most recent growth has been driven by the significant increase in North Carolinians graduating from high school and seeking admission to campuses in the UNC System. Carolina has grown 13 percent in the past 10 years, and the present enrollment plan projects growth of 2,201 additional students, bringing Carolina to 29,447 by 2015 — or another 8 percent increase in a 10-year period. It will be particularly challenging to maintain the quality of our entering first-year undergraduate class. Carolina already receives applications from 69 percent of the North Carolina high school students who have SAT scores of 1300 or above as well as 69 percent of those who graduate in the top 5 percent of their high school class. (Additionally, this year, all but 15 of the 79 African-American students statewide with SAT scores of 1300 and higher applied to Carolina.)
Keeping or ideally improving on our present 15:1 ratio of students to faculty will be difficult with a growing student body. Maintaining our commitment to supply on campus a “bed for every new undergraduate head” will require Carolina to build even more residence halls in addition to several that have been built in recent years. Campus Health Services facilities will need to expand, as will programs from University Career Services. Meeting space for student organizations already is too limited and will need to be expanded.
Dating to the 1998 Enrollment Task Force, the following guiding principles have shaped campus thinking and decision-making on these important enrollment issues:
I often observe that every former Carolina student believes that he or she attended Carolina at exactly the most perfect time — and I go on to comment that every one of us is right. Many of our most vivid and important memories of our Carolina experiences relate to the friendships we made with fellow students who became lifelong friends; with inspiring faculty, some of whom helped shape our careers; and with nurturing University staff. But we also cherish and forever recall the beauty of our campus. There should be little doubt that by most measurements, Carolina is as strong today as it has been at any time during its long, proud history. With the anticipated completion of the comprehensive and thoughtful renovations and new construction, our campus retains its unparalleled beauty. It is comforting that those responsible for leading this continuing growth remain faithful to our heritage and vigilantly work to retain Carolina’s excellence and beauty.
Yours at Carolina,
Douglas S. Dibbert ’70