Over the past decade, no school in the University of North Carolina system has grown as quickly as East Carolina University. In fact, few schools nationally enjoyed the kind of growth that saw enrollment increase from 18,223 students in 1999 to more than 27,500 students today. While that growth was carefully managed as part of a comprehensive expansion strategy, it recently became clear that ECU had reached a point where continued expansion might prove counterproductive to providing the kind of experience students expect from ECU.
“East Carolina has always provided an exceptional education,” said Dr. Austin Bunch, associate provost of ECU, who is responsible for enrollment services. “Students are attracted by our small classes. They can get to know their professors, and vice versa. We have a beautiful campus, quality academic programs, great athletics. All these things have made ECU very attractive to students and we are proud of that. Now our job is to make sure that we grow in a way that allows us to maximize these positive characteristics and preserve our identity.”
After last fall's record freshman class of 4,500 students, this year ECU has returned to a more manageable number.
A 35 percent increase in overall enrollment in only 10 years is remarkable, but considering the campus expansion that occurred during that time with the Health Sciences Building, the Science and Technology Building, College Hill Suites, West End Dining Hall, and Clark-LeClair Stadium all coming online, the growth was well managed. Sizable increases in faculty and staff were also made during that time.
With the current economic limitations affecting public institutions across the state, matching student growth with more residence halls, classrooms, and professors just isn’t feasible. The culmination of the anxiety over the university’s size came last fall when ECU enrolled a record freshman class of more than 4,500 students.
“I think at that point, alarm bells went off because we realized that we may have reached the point of diminishing returns.” said Anthony Britt, director of admissions.
In spring 2008, Chancellor Steve Ballard appointed a Strategic Enrollment Management Task Force to develop a plan to guide ECU’s future recruitment and enrollment efforts. The 32-member task force includes representatives from across the university and focuses on four critical issues affecting enrollment at ECU: defining and embracing ECU’s access mission; improving student retention and graduation rates; determining effective academic program mix; and providing optimal infrastructure to accomplish these goals.
It was the recommendation of the task force, that steps be taken to limit the size of this year’s fall freshman class to 4,000 students, a reduction of 500 students from the prior year, in order to “right-size” the university. The consensus of many around campus is that ECU is right where it needs to be in order to provide optimal access, with optimal results.
To facilitate the Task Force’s recommendation, university admission requirements were raised to better reflect those of typical graduates. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions looked at applicants and enrollees over the years and found some similarities in those students who eventually earned degrees from ECU.
“We went back and looked at the activity over the past several years and surprisingly found that the majority of our applicants who actually apply and enroll are folks who apply while in their senior year of high school during the months of September, October, November, December. So people who are actually going to be here and remain here, they’ve made that decision early on,” said Britt.
Tighter deadlines and higher admissions requirements are helping to right-size ECU.
By holding firm on the nationally recognized admissions deadline of May 1, along with increases to academic requirements for incoming freshman and transfer students, ECU was able to effectively meet the goal of the Strategic Enrollment Management Task Force in reducing this fall’s freshman class.
“Deadlines have always been there, but this is the first year that we have had to arduously enforce the deadlines,” said Bunch. “The downside of that is that it certainly creates some individual negative situations for some applicants, but it is in the best interest of the university as a whole.”
Prospective students can expect the current policies to continue into the future. And while the changes mean that ECU will welcome fewer freshmen this year, it has in all likelihood welcomed more graduates than ever before.