East Carolina University’s fall freshmen enrollment is expected to remain stable but administrators said increasing challenges are on the horizon as the nation’s crop of high school graduates decreases.
As of Thursday, 4,189 freshmen have enrolled at the university, which is similar to the freshmen class of 2020, said Stephanie Whaley, assistant vice chancellor and director of admissions.
Whaley reviewed admissions data and undergraduate recruitment with East Carolina University’s Board of Trustees during a Thursday orientation session. The trustees also received an overview of the university’s finances.
“We do think there may be a slight increase (in fall enrollment) but it will be very slight, a very small percentage,” Whaley said. “We’re striving to close out the fall 2021 class and have already begun recruiting the fall 2022 class.”
Restrictions on travel and gatherings brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic had some effect on recruitment, she said.
The university participated in virtual college fairs but there wasn’t the same level of student participation that an in-person event generates, Whaley said.
The university is employing more regional admission counselors who live in Charlotte, Raleigh and the Winston-Salem areas so they can work in more high schools, she said. ECU hired a person to work out of Richmond, Va., this year to recruit students from northern Virginia, the Tidewater area and Maryland.
Whaley said 2026 is expected to be the first year where there will be a major decrease in high school graduates due to a drop in birth rates after the 2008 recession. The university needs to reach out to younger students to create an affinity between them and ECU so they will come to Greenville, she said.
As of Thursday, 1,704 transfer students have enrolled at ECU, a result of the university’s continuing partnership with schools in the state’s community college system.
“That is about 100 more transfer students than we had at this time last year,” Whaley said.
ECU’s finances will be affected by enrollment challenges, state funding that is expected to be flat and workforce challenges, said Stephanie Coleman, who was appointed vice chancellor for administration and finance on Friday.
Meeting these challenges require maximizing use of federal COVID-19 relief spending, making sure the university’s academic portfolio is a mix of programs that respond to student and employer demands, reviewing administrative services to reduce costs, reallocating resources to growth opportunities and increasing transparency and accountability with the use of metrics and enhanced reporting.
State appropriations, patient payment for services and tuition and fees account for 74 percent of the university’s revenue.
State appropriations fall in the $312 million range, 32 percent of revenue. Patient services bring in $299 million, 23 percent of revenue. Student tuition and fees bring in $187 million, or 19 percent of revenue. Sales and services in areas such as housing, dining and parking bring in $81 million, 8 percent of revenue.
Coleman said other revenue such as grants, contracts, student financial aid, gifts and investment income bring in 18 percent of the budget, but she did not provide a dollar amount.
The university has received three payments of COVID relief dollars, officially called the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds, from the federal government.
The first grant of $19.3 million, received in March 2020, eventually was divided between the institution, covering housing and dining refunds the university gave students when they were ordered home in the spring and fall; and student aid that was based on Pell Grant eligibility.
The second grant of $30.5 million, awarded in December 2020, was broken down into nearly $21 million for the university for further reimbursement of housing and dining loses, COVID testing expenses and additional revenue losses.
Nearly $9.7 million went to student aid and helped with student retention, technology grants, emergencies and class completion.
With the third grant of $53 million, awarded in March, the UNC System office provided five priorities for spending the institutional aid dollars.
ECU plans to continue COVID mitigation efforts, student success, strengthening campus cybersecurity and enrolling and retaining low-income, rural and underrepresented students.
While UNC System set the priorities, individual universities have the flexibility to spend the money in a way that makes sense within the priorities, said Chancellor Philip G. Rogers.
“Education is not going back to the way it was before COVID,” Rogers said. “We are living in this digital world now … where a hybrid learning environment is expected to meet students where they are, on their terms.”
Coleman also reported that a credit rating review by Moody’s and S&P resulted in S&P changing its rating of the university from a negative outlook to stable.
S&P said a stable enrollment, solid retention of students, growth in programs and online offerings, along with a history of surpluses and manageable debt, warranted the improvement.
Coleman, who has served as interim vice chancellor of administration and finance since January, was one of two interim leaders the board of trustees promoted to permanent positions on Friday. Paul Zigas was named university counsel and vice chancellor for legal affairs. He’s held the interim position since September 2019.
While their salaries have to be finalized by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, they will transition to their permanent positions on Aug. 1, according to a university news release.
The trustees also elected new board officers on Friday.
Scott Shook, Greenville financial advisor and vice president of Truist Wealth, was elected board chairman. Jason Poole, a certified public accountant, was elected vice chairman and Vince Smith, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Air Force, is serving his second term as secretary.
“Our mission mainly is to support the chancellor, serving in an advisory role to the chancellor,” said Shook, who joined the board in May 2020 when he replaced a trustee who resigned.
The board’s agenda includes beginning the integration its medical school with Vidant Health to create a new health care brand, Shook said. There also is the challenge of addressing declining enrollment which universities across the nation are experiencing.
“How do we thrive in that environment? There are two kinds of thoughts: you shrink your programs down and manage your way through this or you grow through it,” Shook said.
Rogers supports growth, Shook said, as he does.
“It feels good to start this new role of chancellor with such deep and committed support from our entire board of trustees,” Rogers said. “They really are operating as one unit, they are operating as a collaborative and thoughtful team that is putting the mission at the center of all we can do and you can’t ask for anything more than that as a chancellor.”