East Carolina University fall enrollment dropped 2.8 percent over the previous year, with the decline spreading across new freshmen, transfer students and individuals seeking advanced degrees, administrators said Thursday.

The presentation during a meeting of the Board of Trustees University Affairs Committee had one trustee questioning another reason administrators gave for the decline — a growing number of students graduating in a four-year period.

“Kids should be graduating in four years. We just have to keep refueling the engine. We can’t be blaming that, we should be celebrating that,” said Tom Furr, a Durham businessman who received a bachelor’s degree in finance from ECU.

Furr said it appears ECU’s enrollment process is broken.

“I don’t want to say that everyone isn’t working hard, but whatever we are doing, it is not working the way it should be working,” he said.

ECU’s fall enrollment was 28,005 students as of Sept. 3, the 10th day after the start of classes and when the University of North Carolina System requires an official student count, said Ying Zhou, associate provost for Institutional Planning, Assessment and Research.

Undergraduate enrollment is 22,448, a 2.6 percent drop, and graduate enrollment is 5,557, a 3.2 percent drop, Zhou said.

While the number of first-time and graduate applications increased in the fall, and the admission numbers increased, enrollment in both areas dropped. Transfer applications and admissions were flat, she said.

There also was a drop in student retention between the fall of 2019 and fall of 2020 that affected this year’s enrollment, she said. Despite the enrollment drop, there is positive news when enrollment in different academic programs is examined.

Over the last two years enrollment in the university’s new entrepreneurship and supply chain management grew 60 percent this fall, she said. Enrollment in the traditional degree programs of biology, psychology and management have remained steady. The university’s nursing program also is strong, Zhou said.

Furr asked for a report on the characteristics of students currently enrolled and what attracted them to the school.

“It would be helpful for me to better understand what our students look like,” Furr said. “What is it that attracts them here … that would be helpful for me to understand what is bringing kids here, who is coming here and then answer the bigger question of what is the long-term goal of the university.”

ECU’s peer universities — Appalachian State, UNC-Wilmington and UNC-Charlotte — aren’t losing students, Furr said.

“If everyone else is growing and we’re shrinking, clearly there is something that has to be done or we start to shrink the whole university,” he said. “It just seems like it’s not getting any easier, it’s going to get harder, and right now we are just not hitting on all cylinders.”

Furr said he wants to see the determination and hard work that went into negotiating the integration of the Brody School of Medicine and Vidant Health — an agreement announced earlier this year — applied to the university’s enrollment decline.

Grant Hayes, interim provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the decreasing population of 18-year-olds means there will be a smaller pool of traditional freshmen to draw from in coming years so the university is increasing its efforts to recruit out-of-state students, non-traditional students and international students.

That includes reaching out to individuals who have 40-60 course hours to get them to complete their degree and seeing how many ECU degree programs can be switched to online only courses.

ECU’s administration shares Furr’s concerns, Chancellor Philip Rogers said.

Nationwide there is a 10 percent decline in students transferring from community colleges to four-year universities and colleges, Rogers said. ECU is working with some of the state’s community colleges to allow students to obtain bachelor’s degrees at those schools.

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