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ECU trustees get discouraging student enrollment report from provost

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ECU trustees and administrative staff discussed declining enrollment and a new student code of conduct at their scheduled meeting Thursday at the East Carolina Heart Institute


By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Friday, September 7, 2018

A drop in enrollment and a new student code of conduct process dominated a busy day of committee work on Thursday for the ECU Board of trustees.

ECU’s 2018 enrollment is down in nearly all categories, compared to last year’s figures and will have a large effect on the university’s budget, the provost told the Board of Trustees’ University Affairs Committee at their monthly meeting. 

“Enrollment is a hot topic,” Provost Ron Mitchelson told the committee members.

Mitchelson said the university had experienced five consecutive years of enrollment expansion preceding this fall’s contraction.

“Regardless of how you measure it — a straight head count, full-time or part-time, FTE, or the most important measure of all, student credit production (the basis for funding) — we experienced a decline,” he said. “That’s the truth.”

The head count decline was 1.4 percent, Mitchelson said, but the credit hour production drop, most important to Mitchelson and Sarah Thorndike, vice chancellor for finance and administration, was 2.4 percent. 

ECU has 4,175 first-time freshmen enrolled this fall, compared to 2017’s fall enrollment of 4,362. Transfer students this fall number 1,854, compared to 1,932 in 2017; 1,224 master’s students, compared to 1,347 last year; and 180 post-baccalaureate students compared to 198 in 2017, the data showed. The only category that showed an increase was research/scholarship doctoral students, at 129 in 2018 versus 54 in 2017.

“When you run that through the numbers game, the funding formula matrix, that should yield somewhere near a $5 million budget reduction,” he said. “We await that judgment, but are planning for a budget cut of that amount.”

Growth numbers follow a budget calculation formula, while budget cuts based on declines are normally legislative judgment calls and do vary year to year, Mitchelson said.  

“We had declines in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013 but felt a budget cut in two of those years,” he said. “The cut side is not as formulaic as the growth side, based on my experience.”

Thorndike confirmed to the trustees that ECU will receive approximately $5 million less in state appropriations this year. The reductions will be spread out throughout the university, so it will be unable to reduce its costs.

“We can’t hire less teachers and administrators, so it’s truly $5 million less in our pockets,” she said. “For example, because of the way we spread out the plan, I’m going to have less staff members in administration and finance, which really has nothing to do with having less students. But we have to cover the reduction we’re receiving in some way.”

Mitchelson said the university’s commitment during the funding reduction process will be to protect the classroom and the student credit-hour production.

“I can assure you that the budget cuts will reflect that protection,” he said.

Anticipating many questions from the trustees, especially why the numbers have declined, Mitchelson said that the university has to conduct more thorough analysis of the numbers before that question can adequately be answered.

“We know (the market’s been) disrupted, we know the national market is down by 1.1 million degree seekers and we know every university in the country wants to come into the South to get students, and they’re doing that aggressively,” he said.

“The reality is we’re probably facing several years of declining enrollment across all of our four-year colleges, and it’s going to become much more competitive for out-of-state students,” trustee and committee member Deborah Davis said.

Student conduct

Enrolled ECU students will follow a new process when charged with a violation of the student code of conduct, Virginia Hardy, the vice chancellor for student affairs, told the committee members.

“Separating a student from the university is our last resort,” Hardy said. “We don’t like doing that.”

Suspensions can vary in the amount of time, based on the violation and must reapply for return when the suspension period is concluded and expulsions are per the UNC code, and a student has to petition the chancellor for readmission after a five-year separation, Hardy said. 

Previously, a student could appeal an expulsion to the ECU Board of Trustees and then the UNC Board of Governors, Hardy said. As of this summer, the governors have removed themselves from the process. Decisions on expulsion appeals to the university trustees now are final, she said. Suspensions no longer proceed to the trustees or the governors, she said.

Less than 1 percent of charges brought to the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities during the last four years have resulted in expulsions, Hardy said. 

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.