Colleges and universities across North Carolina and the nation are encountering stiff headwinds. 

College enrollment fell by more than 1 million students during two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and worse is yet to come. The high school-age population will begin to shrink starting in 2025, and growing numbers of young Americans are choosing not to go to college. Many critics say college doesn’t pay off and the return on investment isn’t worth the expense. Though a college degree remains the best path to economic mobility and community prosperity, Americans are growing increasingly skeptical of the value of higher education.

North Carolina — because good leaders prioritized a low-price, high-quality public university system — seemed immune to these challenges. Starting in 2013, UNC System enrollment rose for eight straight years. This fall, however, systemwide enrollment declined by nearly 2%. Twelve of the state’s 16 public universities, including UNCG, lost enrollment. Three of the remaining four institutions reaped a net gain of fewer than 100 students. 

Public flagships and private elites will weather the coming storm because they have well-known brands, international reach, and immense resources. They are well-positioned for sustained success.

UNCG, however, stands in the center of the storm. Pandemic-related enrollment declines disproportionately affected enrollment among Black and under-resourced students — students we are proud to serve. Because of demographic changes and other factors, UNCG and other regional public universities are projected to lose 7% of their enrollment over the next decade. Our concern: enrollment translates into budget and our ability to serve students and the community.

Regional universities can’t grow their way out of this predicament. They can’t price their way out, research their way out or fundraise their way out. What they can and must do is reinvent and innovate.

Reinvention means constant evaluation and improvement. At UNCG, we reconstructed our institutional research, compliance, and online education units to save money, improve performance, and better serve students and the university over the long term. 

Innovation means generating new ideas that can deliver value to students, partners, and the broader community. These ideas must align with a university’s core mission, meet student or market demand and critical workforce needs, require little to no new resources, and attract external funding from corporate partners, foundations, or the government. UNCG and other similar institutions possess creative and accomplished faculty and staff who are up to this challenge.

One example of UNCG innovation is esports. Through a private-public partnership, we built a state-of-the-art video game arena for campus recreation, instruction, research, camps, and statewide tournaments. We are collaborating with industry leader Epic Games to train faculty, staff, students, and N.C. educators on how to use Unreal Engine, its real-time 3D creation tool. Our faculty has created an esports business management concentration and an esports certificate and minor. A donor has endowed a new professorship in innovation with an initial esports focus, and UNCG will pilot a statewide curriculum-centered high school esports league this spring. Esports has the potential to drive enrollment, grow industry partnerships, and generate additional university revenue and support.

Innovation and reinvention will look different across institutions; what works in Greensboro might not in other parts of the state. But regional universities must develop new programs and approaches to attract learners, partners, and funding and better serve students and their communities.

Our mission at UNCG remains unchanged. We educate the nurses, teachers, accountants, small-business owners, and other professionals who fuel the engine of prosperity across the state. This role remains vital, and our students and regional universities like us need support from Murphy to Manteo to weather this storm.

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