The Intersection

myFutureNC Blog Series: Innovative Models for Increasing College Enrollment and Completion: NC Promise

February 19, 2020

For centuries, North Carolina has been called the “Tar Heel State.” This historical nickname isn’t just an artifact of a bygone era. It’s a vivid reminder of why the UNC System fully supports myFutureNC’s goal of 2 million North Carolinians with a high-quality postsecondary degree or credential by 2030.  It is also a reminder of why the long-term success of a program like NC Promise is so important, given the role it will play in this statewide effort.

We earned our nickname because abundant pine forests once made North Carolina the leading producer of nautical stores such as tar, pitch, and turpentine.  The name stuck, even while maritime technology and North Carolina’s leading industries didn’t.  North Carolina now enjoys an international reputation, not for pine pitch, but for high tech and higher education.

Historically, our state has understood that postsecondary education is key to helping North Carolinians adapt in a complex and shifting world. That’s why we founded the nation’s first public university in Chapel Hill in 1789 and why our state constitution mandates college affordability for all North Carolinians.  Today, higher education is more critical to our state’s economy and North Carolinians’ economic mobility than ever before. Still, we need to do a better job helping North Carolinians get from K-12 to the college classroom and, ultimately, into the workforce, with a postsecondary degree or credential in hand.

Recent data make it clear that students succeed once they enter the UNC System. More than 71 percent of our undergraduates earn their degree within five years. This accomplishment means that we are setting the pace for student success. But there’s much work to be done to help more North Carolinians—especially first-generation, rural, and economically disadvantaged students—get access to a college or university, reap the life-changing benefits of higher education, and become valuable contributors to our workforce and industry leadership.

NC Promise is just one example of the hard work North Carolina is doing to increase access to affordable higher education. The North Carolina General Assembly, the UNC System, and three constituent institutions worked together to create this program, which reduces in-state tuition rates to just $500 per semester at three universities: Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina University (WCU).

Because the NC Promise institutions are distributed across three different regions of the state, North Carolinians can find one of these low-cost, high-value learning opportunities near where they live.

NC Promise is clearly working. Enrollment growth at ECSU (29.2 percent) and UNC Pembroke (22.8 percent) has been exponential since 2016. And, with more than 12,000 enrolled, WCU is now serving the largest student body in the institution’s history.

These numbers reflect the broader growth taking place across the UNC System. In an era when many universities in other states are facing declining enrollments, the UNC System has seen record enrollment growth over the past two years. Our growth in transfer students from the North Carolina Community College System has been particularly striking, a trend further reinforced by NC Promise. We’re now serving and graduating more students from low-income families and rural counties than ever before.

These gains—and the proud history of higher education in North Carolina overall—reflect the General Assembly’s steadfast, bipartisan commitment to supporting the UNC System. Continued progress requires continued commitment, and resolution of the current budget stalemate is critical if we want to harness this remarkable momentum. The key to NC Promise’s success and financial viability is the General Assembly’s investment of state funds to offset the institutions’ lost tuition revenue.  With the current impasse, future NC Promise students will continue to pay their $1,000 in annual tuition, but the institutions will not see the state appropriations that were supposed to follow. This puts the sustainability of NC Promise enrollment growth at risk. All three NC Promise institutions are facing the very real likelihood that they will have to limit or reduce enrollment for fall 2020 and 2021.

Our Tar Heel nickname looks back at North Carolina’s heritage; myFutureNC looks forward to an even brighter future for all North Carolinians. With a new state budget in place, the UNC System will be able to continue its work in support of this ambitious goal.


William L. Roper
Interim President of the UNC System

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