Since it took effect in 2018, the NC Promise program has had a huge impact on public higher education in North Carolina.

The initiative is simple: in-state students pay just $500 per semester at four participating UNC system schools, with those schools receiving tens of millions of dollars in supplemental funding from the state to cover the loss in tuition revenue.

For those institutions, the impacts have been clear: sizable boosts in enrollment, paired with the financial subsidies from the state legislature, have breathed new life into struggling campuses; in at least one case, NC Promise has likely saved a university from closure.

A portrait of University of North Carolina Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam, wearing a blue plaid jacket
University of North Carolina Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam talks about how UNC Greensboro is facing the highest budget cuts in the UNC System due to a loss in student enrollment Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023 in Greensboro, NC.

But NC Promise has played a role in enrollment declines at several of the other 12 UNC system schools — those that are not part of NC Promise — contributing to a significant drop in tuition revenue and causing severe cutbacks, at least according to administrators at those schools.

“The introduction of the four Promise schools have hurt us,” UNC Greensboro Chancellor Franklin Gilliam said in a university address last fall. “And we’ve got the data to show that.”

While UNC Greensboro did not provide WUNC with its data, the enrollment numbers at his university and others appear to back up his claim.

A big promise

When it was proposed by Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly, NC Promise was pitched as a “first dollar” program that lowered the cost of tuition to $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out-of-state students. It was championed by Phil Berger, Senate President Pro Tem, and drew swift criticism from progressives who feared it was an effort to cut funding for higher education – particularly to the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

But the legislation passed as part of the 2016 state budget, and in 2018 NC Promise launched with three schools: Elizabeth City State University, an HBCU; UNC Pembroke, a Historically American Indian University; and Western Carolina University, the westernmost institution in the UNC System.

Four years later, another HBCU, Fayetteville State University, was added.

NC Promise institutions include Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University.
NC Promise institutions include Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University.

State budget allocations started at up to $40 million per year for the three participating schools and was increased in each subsequent budget. The allocation is now $82.5 million.

Booming student enrollment

Almost immediately, the NC Promise schools saw sizable gains in enrollment — their highest in decades and reversing the trend of declines. For Elizabeth City State University, that growth likely helpedprevent it from shutting down.

UNC System Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs David English said the NC Promise Program has helped to both stabilize and grow enrollment.

“[It’s helped] those institutions at a time where regional public universities across the country have faced some really difficult headwinds,” English said.

Those national “headwinds” include changing opinions about the value of a degree, and a declining birth rate that’s resulting in fewer traditionally-aged students attending college. But the NC Promise program seems to have negated those factors at the participating schools.

Graph of first-time undergraduate student enrollment from fall 2016-2022 semesters.
Graph of first-time undergraduate student enrollment from fall 2016-2022 semesters.

An additional “headwind” for non-Promise schools

Last October, UNC Greensboro Chancellor Franklin Gilliam had some bad news to break in his state of the university address.

Enrollment over the past five years had plummeted by 10%, costing the university over $22 million in tuition and fees.

“94% of our students come from North Carolina,” Gilliam said. “There are 16 public universities in North Carolina and what, 10 million people? And of that 10 million, fewer of them are 18 than used to be. I mean, do the math.”

Gilliam specifically cited the NC Promise program as drawing students away from UNC Greensboro, where tuition costs $7,661 per year for in-state students — more than seven times what it costs to attend an NC Promise school.

Declining enrollment and tuition revenue were main factors in UNCG eliminating 20 academic programs, majors and minors from the university, leading to faculty layoffs.

UNC Greensboro is not alone.

Marcio Moreno, UNC Asheville’s associate vice chancellor for admissions and financial aid, has experience working at several schools throughout the UNC System, including one promise institution.

“It’s very difficult to compete with that number,” Moreno said. “People see the $500 per semester or $2500 per semester and that’s impressive. And that adds a lot of, you’re going to pull a lot of people toward those universities.”

He said it has been a common occurrence for prospective families to ask what UNC Asheville’s version of NC Promise is.

“I know how much (NC Promise) has benefited some schools,” Moreno said. “Now that I am in a non-Promise school, it’s difficult to explain to families sometimes why they have such an attractive package in certain institutions and we don’t offer something like that.”

A drone shot of the UNC Asheville campus, showing campus buildings and trees with green and orange leaves.
UNC Asheville’s enrollment has dropped 25% since the NC Promise program began, leading to a current $6 million deficit.

UNC Asheville’s enrollment is down 25% in the past five years. Compare that to Western Carolina University, an NC Promise school about an hour away, where enrollment has grown and optimism is high that it will continue.

A year of tuition at UNC Asheville is $4,122 for North Carolina students. That’s more than four times more expensive than Western Carolina.

In October, UNC Asheville announced a new financial aid initiative to try to stay competitive: Access Asheville. It will cover tuition and fees for any in-state student whose household income is $80,000 or less.

“That $500 is attractive,” Moreno said. “So now, I’m trying to educate my population and trying to make sure they understand that if they are admitted, they will receive some type of merit scholarship. Everybody receives something.”

Is NC Promise to blame?

Administrators in the UNC System and a UNC-Chapel Hill education researcher have tracked the NC Promise program data and pushed back against the idea that the program “picks favorites” among the 16 state universities.

“We didn’t see a lot of strong evidence that supported the idea that Promise was taking students away from other institutions in the UNC System,” said Daniel Klasik, an education professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “We saw about a 30 to 40% increase in the number of transfer students enrolling at those (Promise) schools.”

In 2020, Klasik’s team had to pause most of their research. It doesn’t include much data past the first two years of the program, nor any enrollment figures from Fayetteville State.

“It was a lot harder to make any firm conclusions based on what we saw once the pandemic began,” Klasik said. “It has been hard to study ongoing changes of the Promise programs.”

And English, senior vice president for academic affairs for the UNC System, claims that students attending Promise schools aren’t deciding between which UNC System campus they are enrolling in, but rather whether or not to go to college.

“And Promise being such a clear marketing campaign with the upfront tuition, they’re more likely to go versus not go at all.” English said.

Klasik added that when most students are choosing colleges — unless they are going for a public flagship or Ivy League institution — they tend to stick closer to home.

“In that case, none of them are particularly close to UNC Greensboro,” Klasik said. “It seems less likely that students that would otherwise have gone to Greensboro would now be traveling across the state to go to one of the Promise institutions. (But) it’s possible that some students did.”

The future of NC Promise

The state of North Carolina has a long history of funding higher education. In the words of UNC System President Peter Hans, it also has a moral obligation to keep tuition as low as possible.

In addition to the NC Promise program, the Board of Governors has voted to keep tuition flat at all UNC System schools for eight years in a row.

“In real dollars, that means tuition at our public universities is lower today and will be lower next year than it was at the end of the Obama administration,” Hans said at the Board of Governors last fall. “There’s not a single other state in the country that can claim a similar achievement. Not one.”

While that decision helps students pay for college, it’s a fair question to ask — with all the flat revenue, and cuts to programs and faculty layoffs — if what those students are paying for retains the same quality as it once did.

“It appears on the outside looking in, we’re asking our institutions to hold themselves harmless from the outside market impact forces,” said board member Joel Ford. “Our institutions are having to essentially tighten their belts, find efficiencies, make adjustments in order to stay in line with their flat revenue stream.”

Hans pointed out that the UNC System has “received generous increases from the legislature” in the past two years to help defray the loss of tuition revenue.

But there has been no discussion at the General Assembly of extending the NC Promise program to any more state universities, an initiative that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. And that will force non-Promise schools to continue to get creative and take a broader view of higher education in the future.

“I would love people to come and choose my school because it has a lot to offer and I know they can be successful here,” said Moreno at UNC Asheville. “But I sleep happy at night if someone goes to another place and that is going to help them get to the same place (of success).”

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC's higher education reporter and 2023 Fletcher Fellow, working in partnership with Open Campus.