September 16, 2020
To our UNCG faculty and staff,
Every day when I come to campus, I marvel at the tenacity, dedication, and commitment of our staff and faculty. During one of the most challenging periods in our University (and national) history, you come to work focused fully on serving our students, our community, and each other. In that context, it is important to ensure you understand where we stand today as an institution. Beyond the daily battle we face in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to navigate the more familiar challenges associated with running a university where enrollment and student credit hours are directly linked to our budget.
This was a challenging year for enrollment, but I am proud to report strong performance in several key areas.
First, as a clear indication that our commitment to student success is making a meaningful impact – especially on our freshmen – we can report that our first-year retention rate (the number of freshmen from last year who returned this year) lept by 5% to 80.5%. That is a record for UNCG. Nationally, the average first-year student retention rate stands at 73.8%, with only 61.7% actually staying at their starting institutions. Retention progress of this magnitude in a single year is very unusual, and a strong sign that our recent efforts to reach best-in-class graduation rates are paying dividends in student success.
UNCG graduate student enrollment was up by 4.3%, and up nearly 12% over the last 5 years. This suggests that recent growth in research funding (up $2.7m from last year to $42.4m), new program launches, and a rising reputation among several graduate programs, have combined to attract an increasing number of highly qualified students.
Additionally, total online enrollment rose by about 5%, fueled by strong growth (18%) among online graduate students. We also saw a slight increase in continuing online students – a testament to student success initiatives that help keep students enrolled and moving toward achieving their goal of earning a college degree.
We also know that once our students achieve that degree, their UNCG education pays off. For the second straight year, UNCG was ranked number 1 in North Carolina for social mobility by US News and World Report, and we climbed 4 spots to number 23 in the nation. This category highlights the institutions that are most successful in enrolling and graduating students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, propelling them forward to greater economic opportunities.
However, despite these achievements, our undergraduate enrollment declined by approximately 3.5% this year, compared to fall 2019. Total student credit hours (SCH) was also about 2% lower than last year. This was primarily driven by an 11% decline in new students and transfer students. (2020 Fall total enrollment: 19,764 students)
The decline was fueled at least in part by health and financial concerns associated with COVID-19. Nationally, we are seeing students with the most significant financial needs – those eligible for Pell grants and other federal financial aid – change plans and elect to postpone enrollment in four-year universities, often late in the decision-making process. That was certainly true for us. At the same time, we were working through a leadership transition in Enrollment Management.
While enrollment declines have a cascading financial impact, including the loss of tuition and fee revenue, in a typical year we would have a wide range of options to offset this kind of temporary issue with fairly limited impact across the University. This year is far from typical, and the enrollment decline magnifies an already very difficult financial environment for us caused by the fight against COVID-19.
The lingering impacts of the necessary actions we took last Spring – moving students online and vacating our campus while providing housing and dining refunds to our impacted students – set us back significantly. While we are grateful for the CARES Act federal funding we received, it did not nearly cover all the costs. And there are ongoing costs of battling COVID-19. Our residence halls are only about 70% full (largely because of COVID-19 related concerns), rather than the usual 99% occupancy. Parking and dining revenue are down as social distancing and online learning reduce demand. Athletics revenue has been lost with NCAA championship cancellations and the Southern Conference has postponed fall sports.
Fewer students and fewer credit hours makes it much harder for us to offset all of these challenges with existing resources. We expect budgets to be tight this year – about a 4 to 5% reduction – and next year as well. Our leadership team – vice chancellors and deans – are all working on plans to make sure we can meet our financial challenges. Provost Jim Coleman and Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Bob Shea will be sharing more detailed guidance with our leadership teams this week.
We do not expect that we will see continued enrollment declines. We see this as an anomaly – a perfect storm of internal and external factors that combined to set us back this year. But we have an action plan and are already moving forward with key initiatives. Specifically, after a national search, we have hired a new enrollment management leader (Vice Chancellor Tina McEntire) with a proven track record, and that role now reports directly to me. We have also hired a strong new Registrar (Chris Partridge). They have developed an initial action plan that includes improving visitation opportunities and experience for prospective students; enhancing enrollment analytics to improve yield; and optimizing aid offers.
We have to fuel growth, so we are making enrollment growth and student support programs targeting our freshmen and sophomores high priorities, even in the face of budget challenges. It is vital that we all focus on what we can do to improve our fiscal situation – support enrollment growth, manage our finances wisely, and make sure that every decision we make is tied to our strategy, our mission, and delivering on our promise of excellence for our students and service to our community.
We have a shared fate with our state, our community, and each other. In good times, we celebrate together. In the face of tough times, we must also come together. I am confident in our plans, our team, and our future. UNCG has survived many challenges in the past. We are facing another. And we will get through it together.
Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr.