Monday, January 16, 2012

Pope Center says there are too many UNC students; the data say there are too few

Earlier this year, the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy recommended a host of budget cuts for the UNC system, based in good part on false and misleading statements about enrollment growth.
In recent years, expansionist policies have pushed the UNC system far beyond its natural limits.

...The recent rate of growth in the university population is unsustainable. The population of North Carolina grew approximately 16 percent between 2000 and 2009; over that period, UNC enrollment grew 38 percent. This growth places an increasing burden on taxpayers to subsidize additional students...
Enrollments at the schools in the UNC system did grow substantially from 2000 to 2009, though by slightly less than the figures that the Pope Center reported (from 162,761 students in Fall 2000 to 222,322 students in Fall 2009, an increase of 36.6 percent). The Pope Center, however, chose not to report that enrollments in Fall 2010 fell to 221,727 students. Since their report was posted, enrollments fell further to 220,305.

Are these enrollments unnatural or unsustainable? Let's stick with the Pope Center's high-watermark enrollment figures from Fall 2009, as these are the most favorable to its case.

Nationally, enrollment in 4-year institutions grew 37.8 percent from 9.36 million students in Fall 2000 to 12.91 million students in Fall 2009, so UNC's enrollment lagged the general growth in demand for post-secondary education and skills (of course, reporting that college enrollments in the U.S. grew 37.8 percent and UNC's almost did too makes for a very different headline).

Another indicator is the growth in enrollments in two-year institutions. From 2000 to 2009, enrollment in North Carolina's public two-year institutions grew 48.3 percent from 38,369 to 56,896.

We can also consider UNC enrollments relative to the size of the potential student population. There's no perfect measure for this because enrollments include graduate students, non-traditional students, and returning students, but the number of 18-24 year-olds is a general benchmark. The Census Bureau estimated that there were 930,000 18-24-year-olds living in North Carolina in July 2009. So, in Fall 2009 there were 0.239 UNC students per 18-24 year-old living in the state. Nationally, there were 0.253 four-year public-institution students per 18-24 year-old. Far from over-serving its population, the UNC system enrolls fewer students relative to the numbers of youths and young adults.

We can also use the Pope Center's comparison of students relative to the general population. In North Carolina, there were 0.0235 UNC students for every state resident in Fall 2009; nationally, the figure was 0.0251 public-four-year students. Put another way, in Fall 2009, there were 42.5 North Carolina residents potentially supporting each UNC student. Nationally, there were only 39.8 people supporting each public university student.

Jobs in North Carolina and elsewhere demand increasing amounts of skills. North Carolina's youths will have to compete with workers from other states and other countries whose skills are increasing. The state's lower--and now falling--enrollment rates put them and the state at a competitive disadvantage.

The problem in North Carolina isn't too many public university students, it's too few.