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How does campus construction impact enrollment?

Fetzer Field

Mike Bunting, assistant athletic director for facility planning and management comments on the current ongoing construction of Fetzer Field. “It’s been a very difficult site to work on with all the rock and unforeseen conditions,” Bunting said. “You really don’t know exactly what’s under there until you start digging, and it was a messy job.” 

The blossoming weather of springtime is bringing prospective students to UNC in droves, but unsightly construction projects around campus could be driving them away.

The University has 24 ongoing construction projects, and four of them — the Pit Sidewalk Improvements Project, the Wilson Library Roof Replacement project, the Carolina Union Auditorium Renovation and the Davis Library Life and Safety Improvements — are where students are most likely to tour, although not all are clearly visible.

Esther Carlson, a former senior content writer for ARC Facilities, a business that provides information on higher education, said prospective students visiting college campuses are looking for facilities that impress.

“Having curb appeal is sort of like a status symbol for people who want to attend a college,” Carlson said. “They want to feel proud that they’re attending the campus.”

With decreasing enrollment numbers nationwide, universities are generally competing to attract students from a smaller pool of applicants. According to a study by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in spring 2018, enrollment at North Carolina universities for undergraduate and graduate degrees decreased by 0.5 percent compared to spring 2017.  

Enrollment in four-year public universities for students seeking a bachelor's degree increased by 0.5 percent compared to spring 2017, which did not match the 0.8 percent increase from spring 2016 to spring 2017.

Despite these trends, UNC received a record 43,472 first-year applications in 2018, a six percent increase from applicants in 2017. 

For admitted applicants visiting campus on admitted student day on March 30, the construction was not an issue.

“I don’t think it’s really impacted my perception of campus at all,” said Patrick Nixon, an Enloe Magnet High School senior. “It’s still beautiful as it is, no matter what construction is going on.”

Even if construction is not a deal breaker to prospective students, it is still noticed, said Central Cabarrus High School senior Spencer Thompson.

“Initially, when I came here for my first visit last year, I noticed how some of the stucco looked old but I’ve overlooked it,” he said.

Carlson said traditional buildings can attract students if they are properly maintained.

“That’s part of the curb appeal to students and parents alike,” she said. “Yes, the building’s 100 years old, but the campus has taken steps to make sure that it’s a safe building for students to be in.”

For prospective students like junior Katelyn Basak from Grafton High School in Yorktown, Virginia, part of the appeal of the University is the old look of its buildings.

“It’s really pretty, and it gives a little bit of an older vibe,” she said.

For parents like Basak’s mom, Jennifer Basak, having updated facilities is important to her because her daughter plans to attend UNC for five years as part of the University’s speech pathology program.

“Of course the program and the culture here and the facilities are important, because she’s going to be spending five years here if she gets in to this school,” Jennifer Basak said.

Although the costs of renovating and constructing new buildings could be millions of dollars, Carlson said the costs are worth it.

“Yes, it’s going to cost the school money, but it’s an investment in the future of their student population and attracting students in the future,” Carlson said. 

In November 2018, Vice Chancellor of Finance and Operations Jonathan Pruitt said UNC has about $850 million in deferred maintenance needs across campus. That same month, the Board of Trustees approved a $65.39 yearly fee for UNC students to help pay for critical classroom and lab renovation. 

In 2018, UNC finished building an indoor practice facility for football, a new field hockey stadium, a new multi-use lacrosse and soccer stadium and plans to build a new surgical center.

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Although some would say this amount of construction is unusual, Communications Manager for Facilities and Real Estate Stephanie Berrier says it is not.

“To clarify, the number of projects currently underway on campus is fairly representative of what has occurred annually for the last many years,” Berrier said in an email. “The most recent campus “building boom” was in the early 2000s.”

UNC ranked fifth among U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” rankings in 2018, and the quality of some of its programs is known across the country, but Carlson said new and renovated facilities are still a top priority for prospective students.

“Maybe (education) should be, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t face the reality that students and parents have standards and that’s part of the package,” Carlson said. “Yes, higher education is extremely important, but so are these other factors.”