This month, I celebrated my five-year anniversary at UNCG. What was clear then (and remains clear today) is the potential for our campus to be a national model on how to blend access, excellence, and community impact to transform the institution and our students, while making a major contribution to the prosperity of the state. Over the years, I have been proud of the way our faculty and staff, our students, and our extended community have worked together toward this goal. Culture change is hard, but we have taken countless “Giant Steps” together and the results have been not only rewarding for us, but significant and meaningful to the tens of thousands of students who have enrolled, advanced, and graduated from this institution since then.
We have met and exceeded every performance metric (rural enrollments/completions; low-income enrollments/completions; graduation rates; critical workforce degrees awarded) with success unparalleled across the UNC System. We have seen our faculty hires and our research enterprise grow every year (research is up 40% in the last five years). Our rankings are up nearly everywhere – and last week we celebrated our second straight year as number 1 in North Carolina in US News and World Report’s Social Mobility ranking (and number 23 in the nation). Students who come here stay here, as is evidenced by our soaring retention rate for freshmen – 80.5% (Nationally, the average first-year student retention rate stands at 73.8%, with only 61.7% actually staying at their starting institutions). We have opened new residence halls, built a state of the art $105m Nursing and Instructional Building, won athletic championships, set annual records for fundraising and alumni giving, and experienced a surge in our local, state, and national reputation fueled by amazing faculty achievements and institutional successes.
Make no mistake, over the first few years of my time here, increased enrollment has significantly contributed to these successes. For example, managed growth has allowed us to hire and invest in faculty and staff, strengthen the research enterprise, create new academic programs, build on our student success initiatives, and fuel athletic championships. But there is more to do. I am sure you read our message and saw the headlines about our drop in enrollment for this year. I know many of you are asking, “what does this mean for the University?” Perhaps the most important implication is economic, where it means decreased revenues from tuition and student fees, as well as decreased receipts from auxiliary services – housing, dining, sales and service, and parking. In short, it means that the decline in enrollment (particularly among new freshmen and transfer students) curtails our ability to deliver on our core mission of transforming knowledge, student success, and regional and state impact.
Given that we are fundamentally the same university as we were before the decline in enrollment, let’s ask what we can do to help get back on track. First, we have new leadership in Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Tina McEntire and Registrar Chris Partridge, who are already enhancing enrollment analytics to improve yield and optimize aid offers. Second, we need to create more opportunities for students and families to visit campus (a challenge made more complicated in the short term by COVID-19, of course). As our research shows, the more that people get to know us, the more they like us. Third, we need a better, more targeted online presence and a website that immediately grabs the attention of prospective students. Fourth, we need to do a better job of promoting our world class researchers and incredible teachers to prospective students and their families. Fifth, we must continue to innovate our programming, whether in regard to our academic offerings or our student services. Sixth, we have an opportunity to expand our suite of stackable online certificates to meet the need of people to upskill in their post-graduation jobs. The overall point is that we have to intentionally focus on enrollment growth.
It is a very competitive marketplace, and we all must do our part in attracting new students to enroll in our University – as undergraduate and graduate students. To put a finer point on it, we must renew our commitment to enrollment growth at every level of the University. Embracing this culture is understanding that everyone’s job spans the entire student life-cycle from recruitment to graduation (and beyond). We want to provide a university setting where prospective students feel welcomed and see UNCG as their next home and where current students feel our culture of care supporting them on their path to graduation.
But understand that everything matters when recruiting and retaining students. Wear our apparel with pride. Say a kind word to students on campus and prospective students on tours. From what the faculty does in the classroom, to the services we provide, to how our campus looks – it all impacts our ability to attract and retain students. Attracting students to UNCG and keeping them here requires everyone. We need to “be the brand.”
A tough semester for enrollment will not derail UNCG … it won’t stop us from changing lives and making an impact. It does serve as a reminder, though, that we should all come in each day with focus, pride, and energy – and yes, a little competitive fire – so that the best of who we are shines through. If we do that, we will see results. I am confident in everyone at UNCG, and certain that our best days are still ahead. Thank you, and go Spartans!