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Despite enrollment drop, ECU chancellor sees 'no limits' in future

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Students wait for the bus near 10th Street at East Carolina on Jan. 18, 2019. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, January 19, 2019

A year after welcoming its third-largest class of freshmen, East Carolina University saw its enrollment drop by 413 students this fall, a decrease that cost the school $5 million in state funding.

Both losses laid a foundation for the priorities ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton and his leadership team discussed with the school’s Board of Trustees during an operational retreat held Monday in Pinehurst.

“I think nothing could be more transformative to ECU in the next 10 years than gradually getting the funding formula in this state to the place where ECU will be funded for the credit-hour production that we are currently doing,” Staton said.

If the university was funded based on credit hours, a unit used to measure the amount of time college students spend in a class, the school would be receiving an additional $40 million annually.

The immediate question trustees had is why has enrollment dropped, especially after years of increasing growth. Ron Mitchelson, provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, said there is no one cause.

“Promise school applications are up to levels that are almost unbelievable,” Mitchelson said.

Board Chairman Kieran Shanahan expressed surprise, because promise schools have higher fees to offset revenues lost because of the lower tuition rates.

“That $500 (tuition) sells,” Mitchelson said.

The General Assembly designated Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University as promise schools, universities where tuition is $500 a semester. It was designed to lower higher education costs for families and attract more students to those schools.

Eastern North Carolina’s population, which historically has accounted for the bulk of ECU’s students, also is declining and other colleges and universities are heavily recruiting rural students, Mitchelson said.

“I do believe that one of the things that impacts enrollment is the negativity that has been associated with (the university) the last three years,” Staton said. “Because largely of three (bad) football seasons.”

The university needs to do a better job of promoting itself as an affordable option that graduates a number of students in the traditional four-year time frame, meaning students don’t have to take on over burdensome debt.

Mitchelson cautioned the trustees that a goal of 30,000 students enrolling in the fall 2019 semester would not be met.

The enrollment drop also created problems in student housing, said Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs.

ECU has 5,500 dormitory beds, and 350 were empty this fall, she said. The number would have been higher, more than 700, if Greene Residence Hall had been open. The dorm is closed because it’s undergoing renovations. Hardy said she is nervous about it reopening.

Student housing is self-supporting, Hardy said, and empty beds are lost revenue, which means lost funding for upkeep and improvements.

Trustees were surprised. One noted that only a few years ago, the university had to contract with private student housing developments to house all the students who wanted to live on campus.

That happened when Gateway residence hall was under construction and several other dorms were being renovated.

There are now five, amenity-filled student housing developments open within easy walking distance of campus, a sixth is under construction and a seventh is planned.

“We are in a competitive environment in Greenville,” Staton said. There is a huge debate nationally about whether colleges and universities should get of housing.

ECU currently requires freshmen to live on campus. A trustee asked if the university could require sophomores to live on campus. Hardy said the university has too few people to accommodate that number of students.

There was a suggestion that more Living-Learning Communities, groups of students who are in similar academic programs and who live in the same dorms, could be established.

Hardy said there are efforts to encourage transfer students to live on campus.

Although enrollment is down, ECU had 28,713 students enrolled this fall, and whether they live on and off campus, they still need a multitude of services.

Hardy said the school’s student health services center needs a larger facility and more staff, especially in the area of mental health.

However, the program mainly operates off student fees, and administration is sensitive about increasing costs, so upgrading the facility isn’t possible at this time, she said. Ideally, the university should have 20 counselors, Hardy said. It currently has 16.

Trustee Bob Plybon asked why the medical school’s telepsychiatry couldn’t be made available to students.

Student Government Association President Jordan Koonts said his organization recently spent $32,000 to launch an online program where students can seek online counseling.

Staton wrapped up the retreat with a call to refocus on the university’s mission.

“If we can avoid distraction and stay focused on our mission and our students, I believe there are no limits to where ECU can go,” Staton said.

“Public higher education is a partnership and it really only works when we all come respectful of one another, respectful of the mission and focused on it. That is what I really hope 2019 is all about,” Staton said.

He urged the trustees to join administrators in engaging members of the UNC Board of Governors and the N.C. General Assembly so they’ll know ECU’s mission is worth the investment.

The university is going to renew its efforts to secure money to begin planning for a new building for the Brody School of Medicine because medical students “deserve to train in facilities that will prepare them for their careers,” Staton said.

It’s often stated that institutions of higher education must operate like a business, Staton said, yet there is no business like it.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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