UNC System considers raising cap for out-of-state admissions at HBCUs

UNC System considers raising cap for out-of-state admissions at HBCUs

- in Higher Ed, News, Top Story
NC A&T is  one of three HBCUs  that could see its cap raised. (Courtesy photo/ncat.edu)

NC A&T, NC Central, and Elizabeth City State targeted for significant hikes

When the UNC System Board of Governors meets next month, its members will vote on whether to raise the cap on out-of-state admissions to three Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the system: North Carolina A&T State University, North Carolina Central University and Elizabeth City State University.

The schools have lobbied for this change; each would benefit for different reasons. The cap increase is also a testament to the appeal of the system’s HBCUs and their special place within it.

To ensure qualified North Carolinians can receive the greatest benefit from UNC System schools, out-of-state admissions at most campuses are currently capped at 18%. Schools can be penalized if they admit a higher percentage of incoming first-year students from out of state. (The NC School of the Arts and the School of Science and Math have a different cap because they are specialized schools.)

Last year, the UNC Board of Governors raised that cap to 25% at all five of the system’s HBCUs. Next month, the board is poised to raise the cap to 35% at A&T and NCCU and to 50% at Elizabeth City State.

Hans sees multiple benefits, reasons for change

“It was clear to me that, particularly in consultation with the chancellors at Elizabeth City, Central and A&T, additional room for them would benefit those institutions significantly,” said UNC System President Peter Hans in an interview last week.

There are a number of benefits to raising the cap, Hans said.

“Out of state students on the whole have higher GPAs,” Hans said. “They hopefully stay in North Carolina, adding to our talent pool. There’s a financial benefit, not only in the form of, necessarily, the tuition and enrollment of course, but support for the auxiliary operations – housing, dining, athletics, transportation – that campuses are responsible for.”

UNC System President Peter Hans

While most of the system’s HBCUs have reported admission increases in the last few years, NCCU’s fall 2021 enrollment was 7,953 – down 1% from 2019.

Hans said he’s spoken with chancellor Dr. Johnson O. Akinleye about the decrease. “I think he might argue there is increased demand from predominantly white institutions for students who might usually choose an HBCU,” Hans said. “That might be one factor.”

Another factor could be concerns about public safety in the city of Durham, Hans said. The system and the university have had conversations about expanding the role of campus police, he said.

From a housing and cost-of-living perspective, Durham is also the most expensive city to host an HBCU in North Carolina.

Fayetteville State University, another HBCU, is now joining the NC Promise program, which offers $1,000 per year tuition for in-state students at certain universities in the system and $5,000 per semester tuition for those coming from out of state. That increases competition in-state, Hans said, which could have affect NCCU’s admissions as well.

None of those factors seem to be impacting Elizabeth City State or A&T.

ECSU looks to build on recent growth

Elizabeth City State’s fall 2021 enrollment was up 2.6% to 2,054, the largest enrollment the school has seen since 2013. But that’s still far from its peak of about 3,000 students, Hans said.

That could have to do with the campus’s “unique geography,” Hans said. The university “really is part of the tidewater area of Virginia,” he said.

Elizabeth City State provost Farrah Ward

But NC Promise has helped to bulk up its numbers, Hans said, and $140 million in new capital projects for the school will mean upgrades to its electrical and plumbing capacity, new dorms and a new aviation center.

It’s clear the school isn’t turning away qualified North Carolinians, Hans said, but would benefit from its out-of-state admissions cap being raised to 50%, while it pushes for much-needed growth.

Farrah Ward, provost at Elizabeth City State, agreed. “After years of rapid high school graduate growth in North Carolina, we have begun to see the number of high school graduates level off dramatically,” Ward told Policy Watch this week. “With fewer students entering college – and all of the higher education institutions competing for the same students – lifting the out-of-state enrollment cap is important for ECSU’s continued growth.”

“All eligible North Carolina high school graduates will continue to be admitted to ECSU if the out-of-state cap is increased, as we have the capacity to accept more students on our campus, and look forward to the opportunity to help develop more leaders,” Ward said.

Optimism at A&T

A&T, already the nation’s largest HBCU, has been one of the most successful in North Carolina. Historically large private donations and its eight-year capital campaign generated a record $181 million in giving; its fall 2021 enrollment was 13,332 – up 6%.

“They are on a trajectory to become a Research 1 institution – the only HBCU in the country [to hold that designation], potentially,” Hans said. “What Chancellor [Harold] Martin has done – expanding his vision or A&T, expecting more of himself, of us, of everyone on campus – it’s exciting to buy into. I completely support his approach to make this the finest HBCU in the country.”

Dr. Tonya Smith-Jackson, interim provost at A&T

Dr. Tonya Smith-Jackson, interim provost at A&T, said continued growth is part of that approach. “Obviously our university has been focused on STEM since our very beginning, and we’ve seen increased enrollment over time, but also the arts, humanities and social sciences matter to us as well and we’ve seen increased enrollment there,” Smith-Jackson said.

A&T has always attracted students from North Carolina in all of those areas, Smith-Jackson said. As the school’s profile has grown, the university has seen increased interest from out-of-state students as well. With the cap in place, they’ve had to turn some away – not a position a growing university wants to face.

“In particular they want to come to a strong HBCU which is preeminent in many areas, graduating the highest number of Black engineers and Black agriculturalists,” Smith-Jackson said. “We’re seeing that across the nation and with a cap of 35 percent we’ll be able to offer more students that opportunity.”

National developments around race factor in

As the nation has become more politically polarized and issues of race have become the third rail of political and academic discourse, more young Black people have been drawn to what HBCUs can offer – in the classroom and beyond. Smith-Jackson said she has seen the difference herself.

“The spirit of the times right now is people are giving an honest look with a better lens to HBCUs,” Smith-Jackson said. “They’re seeing that HBCUs have managed to survive and thrive, despite the biases in resources, primarily the public ones from their state legislatures.”

Black students and their parents are also seeing the value of HBCUs as places that are more free from the discrimination and everyday racial tensions that students may face at predominantly white institutions, Smith-Jackson said.

As a cognitive engineer, Smith-Jackson said, the benefit is obvious. “You’re in an environment where your cognitive capacity can be allocated to learning and research,” she said. “You’re not being devalued, made to feel invisible or dealing with microaggressions that consume your cognitive capacity and distract you from the work you’re there to do.”

Smith-Jackson went to predominantly white institutions, she said. Her five siblings went to HBCUs. “When I came out, I was not quite like them in terms of my confidence, my confidence in my capabilities, my self-efficacy. When they came out of those HBCUs as engineers and teachers, they came out confident and ready to go, confident they brought their best self to their teaching and learning experiences and could bring their best self to their work.”

“There’s a psychological and cognitive difference,” Smith-Jackson said. “You can excel if you are normalized in an environment where people know you have the ability and they aren’t underestimating you.”