Tiffany Hensley was valedictorian of the class of 2008 at Mountain Heritage High School in Burnsville. She ran cross-country, volunteered for the Special Olympics, was co-editor of the yearbook and served as secretary of her school’s student government. In her senior year, she was rewarded for her efforts with an acceptance letter from UNC. But you won’t see her on campus today because Tiffany is a senior at East Tennessee State University.
Tiffany’s reasons for choosing ETSU were practical. ETSU offered her a full scholarship. UNC did not. ETSU is only an hour away from her home. UNC is five.
But Tiffany’s case is an illustration of a larger problem. A quick look at some statistical profiles makes it easy to see how insular this campus’ student body is. A 2011 report from the UNC General Alumni Association, which profiled the class of 2014, found that 51 percent of in-state students come from five counties: Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Orange and Forsyth.
Think about it. The majority of in-state students in the current sophomore class come from just five of North Carolina’s 100 counties. It might be tempting to write this off as a fluke or to at least attribute it to population distribution. But a closer examination offers no such explanation.
In fact, it reveals an even greater disparity than the initial figures suggested: These five counties may account for 51 percent of the class of 2014, but they only represent about 30 percent of North Carolina’s population.
This is a problem for North Carolinians, who have all made an investment in the world-class university we have here in Chapel Hill. By failing to draw a sufficient number of rural students, UNC is depriving these areas — who pay taxes just like everyone else — of much-needed homegrown leaders, who can go back and make a difference in their all-too-often overlooked communities.
The disparity is detrimental to other segments of the student body, too. A homogenous student body diminishes campus life and denies us a fundamental college experience: exposure to and education from people with different backgrounds.
Less obvious but equally crucial are the political consequences of this homogeneity. Chapel Hill was especially roughed up in last year’s state legislative budget battles. Could a contributing factor have been that representatives from the state’s less-urban counties felt relatively little responsibility to our campus? If a representative’s constituency isn’t connected to UNC, if only a few students go to Carolina every year, what incentive does that elected official have to fight — truly fight — against spending cuts to our university?
UNC needs to continue to attract North Carolina’s best and brightest, and the talent will never be equally distributed between the state’s counties. But it is ridiculous to suggest that the current disparity is an accurate reflection of the quality of the students outside of the Triangle Area and the suburbs of Charlotte.
It won’t be easy to change this profile, but we can start by improving our social, economic and educational outreach in these areas, so students like Tiffany will feel like there is a place for them in Chapel Hill. Both our future and North Carolina’s will be better for it.