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TOP STORIES OF 2017: No. 5

Top Stories of 2017: ECSU 'turns corner,' sees enrollment rise

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University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings (left) meets with Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Thomas Conway (center) and members of the UNC-ECSU "working group" during a meeting in October at the K.E. White Center. Chancellor.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Elizabeth City State University — in the words of the University of North Carolina System president —  “turned a corner” in 2017, reversing a six-year decline in enrollment. The university also began preparing for an expected influx of students in fall 2018 fueled by a new tuition-reduction program.

ECSU welcomed in August its biggest freshman class in five years, which coupled with an increase in the number of transfer students, gave the university its first enrollment increase in seven years. Total enrollment for ECSU’s fall 2017 semester was 1,411 students, up from 1,357 in fall 2016.

Chancellor Thomas Conway said the enrollment increase was cause for celebration — even if momentary.

“While I must make it absolutely clear to everyone involved that one uptick in fall enrollment can’t be interpreted as a trend, we will take a moment to celebrate this accomplishment because it is the first time in seven years that ECSU has seen an overall increase in enrollment,” Conway said in a statement.

In an interview in October, UNC President Margaret Spellings credited Conway with leading ECSU to growth, saying the university has “turned the corner.” She, too, however, echoed Conway’s caution, saying, “We still have a journey ahead of us.”

The university had further cause for celebration in early December when it learned that its accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, had removed ECSU from “warning status.” SACS imposed the sanction in June 2016, based on problems with ECSU admissions and financial aid standards identified in an internal audit by UNC General Administration. The audit found, among other things, that ECSU had admitted students who did not meet admission requirements, and had awarded financial aid to students who were not eligible for that aid.

Conway said SACS officials advised ECSU in June that its focus was no longer on the university’s financial aid processes but solely concerned with its enrollment process. He said the university had since satisfied the regional accreditation agency that enrollment procedures are up to standard and being followed diligently.

Regarding enrollment, ECSU is aiming even higher than the 1,411 students who enrolled this fall. Thanks to more robust recruiting and the NC Promise tuition-reduction program slated to kick in next fall, ECSU officials are pursuing a bold enrollment goal of 600 freshmen and 1,700 total students in fall 2018.

NC Promise is a program state lawmakers approved for ECSU and two other campuses — UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University — that reduces the cost of in-state tuition to $500 per semester and out-of-state tuition to $2,500. 

To help ECSU plan for the influx of students expected to arrive because of NC Promise, Spellings formed a second UNC-ECSU “working group” in 2017 that includes both members of the UNC Board of Governors and ECSU trustees. Spellings formed a first working group for ECSU in fall 2016 after the campus missed its enrollment target and fell below 1,400.

The second working group includes Board of Governors member Walter Davenport, who chairs the group; Board of Governors Vice Chairman Harry Smith and Board of Governors member Steve Long; ECSU Board of Trustees Chairman Kim Brown, Vice Chairman Harold Barnes and trustee Jan King Robinson.

At the top of the group’s agenda, Davenport explained in October, is ensuring ECSU is capable of attracting and keeping a large student body.

“We have an aggressive timetable,” Davenport said, noting the group hoped to finish its work by June. “In the months of November and December, we are going to be evaluating all the divisions and operations; we're going to complete a controlled audit to assist in operational evaluation and improvement.”

Davenport also said the group “will make immediate changes as necessary in financial aid, enrollment, and other areas” and then “develop recommendations for new organizational structure and operational practices.” The group also plans to develop a strategy for implementing NC Promise “to put enrollment growth in place,” he said.

Conway said the working group is designed to help ECSU achieve long-desired stability and growth.

“There's been a lot of consternation over the years about the fits and starts in terms of things that have been attempted at ECSU,” Conway said. “It's time to go for a permanent fix. It's time to move from fits and starts to sustainable change.”

Spellings stressed that the working group’s goal is to guarantee ECSU fully benefits from NC Promise, and part of doing that is ensuring the campus is prepared for rapid growth. She described the tuition-discount program a “huge, huge opportunity” for students and for the university.

Evidence thus far suggests ECSU is on track to meet its enrollment goals next year.

Darious Eure, ECSU’s associate director of admissions, said in a report to the ECSU Board of Trustees in early December that there are 19 “confirmed” admissions for fall 2018, compared with five this time in 2016. A confirmed admission is a student who has notified the university they plan to enroll but have not completed the enrollment process.

The university has received 463 completed applications and admitted 188 students for next fall, compared with 234 completed applications and 118 admissions at the same point in 2016.

Brown, the trustee board chairman, said at the September trustees meeting that he wanted them to understand the significance of the uptick in enrollment.

"This has been the millstone hanging around our neck and we are really proud of the progress that we have made," he said.

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