Financial health of NC colleges and universities in the spotlight heading into fall

Images of the N.C. State Belltower, UNC Chapel Hill Old Well, and Duke University Chapel via AP.

When University of North Carolina System Interim President Bill Roper recently issued a statement that campuses would reopen this fall, he acknowledged the difficulties of digital learning and said it couldn’t replace in-person instruction. “The majority of our faculty and students need access to our libraries, labs, classrooms, and medical and agriculture facilities to fully engage with their research, teaching, learning, and service work,” he said.

But even with many of the state’s colleges and universities planning on returning this fall, schools are being forced to examine their own financial health in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to WRAL News, a new study predicted that about one-third of the nation’s private colleges will not survive the current pandemic due to financial struggles.

Similarly, public colleges nationwide are facing severe budget cuts. Governors across the nation grappling with business closures and skyrocketing unemployment are having to also cut money from their state’s contribution to community and four-year colleges.

Schools right here in North Carolina are feeling the impact. St. Augustine’s University president Maria Lumpkin told reporters the school had cut staff and a million dollars in expenses and received $7 million in assistance funding just to stay afloat.

College planning experts advise parents and students to do some digging when it comes to the financial viability of the schools they are considering. Edmit, an online tool that helps families make smarter financial decisions about college, tuition, savings, and the return on their investment, lists several factors families should consider including tuition and discounts which may be masked as “scholarships.”

“Unless it’s a very wealthy school, aggressive measures to provide scholarships and reduced prices can be a sign of trouble,” Edmit advises. “This is because colleges who are struggling to find enough revenue are looking to enroll as many students as they can – and reducing prices is one way they can do that.” Edmit also recommends that students look at what share of students receive a scholarship saying that if almost no one pays full price, the school’s revenue is likely to be suffering as well.

Since the shutdown, most major universities have had to do their own form of outreach. While some may be trying to lure weary students back to campus this fall by offering more in the way of financial aid and scholarships, others are trying to raise money from alumni in order to make ends meet moving forward. NC State University recently circulated an email to its alumni asking for donations to the Extraordinary Opportunity Scholarship Initiative stating that the importance of the scholarship had only grown as families struggle during uncertain times. “Currently NC State is able to fulfill only 73% of the average student’s needs, including the use of loans, meaning some students choose to enroll at universities that can offer more assistance. Others defer or abandon their academic dreams altogether,” the email reads in part.

Over the past few months, UNC Chapel Hill says it distributed more than $800,000 to more than 1500 students through its Carolina Student Impact Fund. They say they will continue to work to secure additional funding from private and other institutional sources to help students through the financial challenges of COVID-19.

At Duke University, Vice President for Public Affairs & Government Relations and Chief Communications Officer Mike Schoenfeld says they are not offering any new or special scholarships for the coming year. “We have a longstanding commitment to meet the full demonstrated financial need for all students and that will continue,” he said.

No one was available to comment on possible changes in financial aid from Wake Forest University, but an automated email addressing their policy this spring could be an indication of what is to come this fall. “If you are a currently-enrolled undergraduate student for the spring 2020 semester, inquiring about the impact of taking Pass/Fail courses as discussed in the message from the Dean of the College, please know that we have received formal guidance from both the U.S. Department of Education and the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, that neither Title IV Federal Student Aid nor NC State Aid program eligibility will be affected by your election to take spring 2020 semester courses as either Pass/Fail or graded. If you receive an academic or talent-based scholarship, your annual renewal or continuation will not be affected by your election to take spring 2020 semester courses as either Pass/Fail or graded,” the statement reads.

While average tuition and fees to get a postsecondary education in North Carolina is below the national average, it is still astronomically high. Best Schools North Carolina lists four public and five private schools in their Top Colleges listing. For academic year 2019-2020 average undergraduate tuition & fees among Top Colleges schools was $8,168 for in-state students and $38,963 for out of state students. Among the Top Colleges schools Duke had the most expensive rates at $58,031, and UNC Wilmington had the lowest at $21,246. When taking into account all the higher learning institutions across NC, average in-state tuition was $3,506 and out of state tuition was $16,928. Among all colleges in North Carolina, Duke University was still the most expensive and Platt College-Miller-Motte-Jacksonville was the cheapest at $4,000.

North Carolina lawmakers seeking to address the impact of COVID-19 on higher education costs have proposed an education omnibus bill, HB 1035, that would offer flexibility in university scholarship provisions well as tuition waivers for students in some apprenticeship programs. 

In addition, a handful of education-based nonprofits and associations are stepping in to offer students some much needed assistance when it comes to navigating higher education in this time of economic turmoil. MyFutureNC, a non-profit organization dedicated to closing the state’s educational attainment gap, is running a month-long campaign dubbed “FAFSA Frenzy NC” to raise awareness about the importance of filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The group’s President and CEO, Cecilia Holden said they had seen a significant drop in the state’s FAFSA completion rate compared to a year ago. She pointed to the fact that since campuses essentially shut down March 13, students have not had the necessary support or ability to ask questions when it came to the application process.

“We know the jobs of the future, and just as importantly, the jobs of today, require education after high school,” she said. “We also know completing the FAFSA is directly linked to college enrollment and attendance. It’s more important now than ever, with the high unemployment and economic uncertainty from the COVID-19 crisis, that our high school seniors earn a college degree or high-quality credential to prepare them for the workforce. Now is not the time to wait or to take a gap year.”

According to a 2020 ​report by Education Strategy Group​ (ESG), 90% of FAFSA completers attend college directly after high school, compared to just 55% of students who don’t complete the FAFSA. FAFSA completers are also more likely to persist in their coursework and obtain a degree.

For their part, admissions officers at many of the major universities in North Carolina remain upbeat and confident they will weather the storm.

“More than 1,500 undergraduate students have committed to come to Wake Forest as part of the Class of 2024. We expect our incoming class to be comparable in size to previous years,” said Cheryl Walker Acting Executive Director of News & Communications at Wake Forest. “We did not change our application process for the incoming class – except, of course, we had to connect with prospective students virtually instead of seeing them in person. We reached out to all of our accepted students to have one-on-one conversations to respond to questions and share what is distinctive about the Wake Forest experience.”

Steve Farmer, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergrad Admissions at UNC Chapel Hill had similar news to share. “We are very proud of the number of students who want to call Carolina home. For the entering class of 2020, Carolina received 44,500 first-year applications for only 4,200 spaces. This year, we had a record number of students accept our invitation to enroll for the fall semester. We’re grateful for the high level of interest in attending Carolina that we receive each year and we’re also sure that our ability to offer a world-class education at an affordable price made a difference to our applicants and to their families,” he said.