Until this current school year, student enrollment at UNC-Asheville had dropped in each of the previous five years—down 25 percent from where admissions officials want it to be. The drop mirrors national trends.
My guests today are Marcio Moreno, UNC-Asheville's associate vice chancellor of admission and financial aid; and Michael Strysick, head of the university’s communications and marketing. We talk through the university’s Access Asheville program, which waives all tuition and fees for North Carolina-based undergraduates in households earning less than $80,000 a year. We also get into larger trends, such as an increase in competition for students, along with changes in admissions designed to address issues of equity.
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Matt Peiken: Now this is a small university, even in the UNC system. Give us a sense of where Asheville sits in terms of its student population size-wise and demographically, compared to other schools in the UNC system.
Marcio Moreno: Yeah, UNC Asheville is one of the smallest institutions in the system. I think there is only one or two smaller institutions, probably Elizabeth City and the School of the Arts are smaller than us.
We have been working towards increasing enrollment since the moment I arrived. I think that's one of the goals of the university to bring back enrollment to the numbers that we used to have a couple of years ago. So everything that we are doing is with that in mind.
Matt Peiken: Give us some context of what the numbers were.
What was enrollment at its peak? And when was that? And what does it dip to?
Marcio Moreno: The peak enrollment a couple years ago was 3, 800. We suffered a couple of decline seasons. Right now we are at 2, 907 and we are actually working on creating a path that can bring us back to where we were.
Matt Peiken: That's, percentage wise, that's quite a dip. A lot of schools.
I understand lost enrollment through the pandemic, there were a lot of changing patterns in terms of why students were going to college or not. Give me a sense of what you can attribute to not being the pandemic what factors played into the enrollment dip that can't just be explained away by the pandemic.
Marcio Moreno: Let me tell you, enrollment in North Carolina is extremely complex and very competitive. Again, for the fact that we have so many good institutions. There are many universities that are doing very creative things. In enrollment, the pandemic hit everybody really, really hard. Some universities were more prepared than others, and some universities were actually ready to swift very, very quickly and adapt to the new reality.
Definitely, universities with larger offerings for online classes, for example, they were more prepared.
Matt Peiken: You're saying they were more prepared just because of the pandemic itself, that they, that students immediately had more options with some of these other universities.
Marcio Moreno: And other universities offer a broad range of majors that are already offered online.
So they were definitely more attractive for students that That we're looking for something like that, you know, it takes years to bring new programs and here in UNC Asheville, we are very good at that one on one, at that face to face, so definitely the profile we were not at the right moment at the right time.
Matt Peiken: And also, look, UNC Asheville is the liberal arts school in the UNC system and, the liberal arts... really depend on that kind of face to face, hands on education across the arts. Is that part of this, or were there other disciplines, other majors within the UNC Asheville curricula offerings that were just generally behind in online offerings compared to peer universities?
Marcio Moreno: Just like you said, we are excellent in what we do. We depend on that one on one or that face to face. So it's very difficult for a university with that profile actually to, to change rapidly all the universities that don't have the same profile, of course have more opportunities to add majors and add more online classes.
Matt Peiken: The 2900 enrollment now, is that a low for a number of years? Give me a sense of. Context wise, where does that enrollment sit compared to last year, the year before, or the year before?
Michael Strysick: We had five successive years of enrollment decline that got us from 3, 800 to 2, 900.
We have stopped the decline. With this incoming class. In fact this was the largest incoming class over the last four years. So what we've been able to do is stabilize and stop that decline. And we are working very hard to position ourselves to return to that higher enrollment. Yeah. It took us several years.
To get to the point that we're at, it will take us several years to regain that. But from an infrastructure standpoint, we are a campus fully able to accommodate an enrollment. of 3, 800 in terms of the buildings that we have in terms of that infrastructure and in terms of faculty and staff as
Matt Peiken: well.
So this year, just to be clear, this year is the first year of stopping that decline. Yes. And what do you attribute that to? That's a pretty significant thing that you've, that you had a big hike in enrollment this year or a big hike compared to what that slide was. What do you attribute that to?
Marcio Moreno: A lot of.
Elimination of barriers, making sure that we travel to more schools, travel to other parts of the states that we were not doing it in the past. We are going back to basics, admissions 101, and making sure that everything is happening, making sure that we have a very strong communication plan, that we have a very strong plan of emails.
Texting a calls that goes out to all the prospective students a working in marketing to make sure that all our brochures and all the view books are attractive and have the right information to be attractive for more students.
Michael Strysick: And I think we've just been doing a better job of telling the story of what we offer.
I think we've been doing a better job leaning into our location as well. Asheville is a destination city that has just caught fire and caught the attention of folks not only in North Carolina, but across this nation and across the globe.
Matt Peiken: Marcio. From what I also understand nationally, liberal arts colleges and universities in general were starting to struggle. There were challenges as parents were looking at what kind of majors are worth the cost of education I was listening to an episode of the daily from the New York Times, and there was a New York Times writer named Paul tough, and I interviewed him actually to get context for this and talking about the college wage premium versus the college wealth premium and what would Be worth the cost of college education. What kinds of careers would pay you enough? Make up the cost of what it cost you to go to school
Michael Strysick: I think you're making a good point that nationwide private. Liberal arts colleges are really a niche presence in higher education overall, under five percent.
And they become very expensive. And I think particularly at a time when we're dealing with issues of inflation. And the economy isn't as strong, people are really looking at the value proposition and the investment of a private liberal arts college education it, it just makes sense that a public education would be seen as more affordable.
I think what's different about UNC Asheville is we are a strong arts and sciences university, which really focuses on high impact practices, close relationships with students mentoring. But at a really affordable price point because we are a public institution. And I think even this last year we've we can help.
promote the institution to continue to increase applications by letting people know that this is really a good option. It's a very affordable option. And the other thing is everyone's at the mercy of. Population demographics, which get impacted by all sorts of factors, and what we're looking ahead to is an enrollment cliff in 2026, which will be the direct impact of the economic downturn in 2008, and there was a significant decline in birth rates in 2008, so you forward.
18 years into the future, 2026, and there are simply far fewer high school graduates that we will all be competing for at the same time. And we've seen a little bit of ebb and flow in the number of high school graduates over the last five and ten years as well as a public institution, we had been mandated that 83 percent of our students needed to be from in state.
So then what happens is all of the outstanding colleges and universities in North Carolina and the public systems in particular were competing for the same pool. Of high school graduates and transfer students. Fortunately, the Board of Governors approved recently that our in state population was reduced to 75%, so we have the opportunity to attract more students from out of state.
And in fact, I think even this last year we were really right up against that, that 25%.
Matt Peiken: You just pointed to a few factors that are leading up to Access Asheville. You mentioned you're approaching this enrollment cliff, as you said, tied all the way back to 2008, when we started seeing just lower birth rate, and there's economic challenges for all families, more so now than before in terms of sending their kids off to college.
Even though UNC Asheville is certainly affordable compared to a lot of other schools, you're starting to see these trends that are developing and you said you were having more applications now even before you starting Access Asheville, you're seeing more applications, but you talked about an ebb and flow.
Talk about the genesis of Access Asheville. When did conversations even come up for this program?
Marcio Moreno: Yeah, like I said, I started here in July and one of the first things I did was, of course, taking a look at everything that you have done in the last couple of years and realizing what type of numbers, what type of data do you have to do a very good homework, right?
Because I'm a numbers guy. We were blessed to realize that we could go back to eight years of financial aid data and we have the ability to Crunch that in different ways and analyze really what the university had done for the last eight years and then see the results. See what type of financial aid packages we were putting out what type of financial aid packages were most successful.
So we really understood different models that the university had used in the past and we were able to isolate a lot of good information from that. Couple of things that we'd realized, we realized that. Everything that the university had been doing in the past was actually conducive to get us to where we are right now, which is actually promoting access Asheville.
We were already doing something very similar for a lot of people and we were able to identify a group of people and that's how we went to identify the families who have an AGI of 80, 000 or less.
Matt Peiken: Let me be clear. You said you the university was already doing something even though it didn't have a program name like this, what was the university already doing that it was sort of a stepping stone to access Asheville?
Marcio Moreno: The university had already been providing very robust financial aid packages for everybody. From my experience, like I said, coming from four other institutions. I can tell you that our financial aid packages are actually pretty strong.
What we are trying to do with Access Asheville is just raise our hands and raise our voice and making sure that everybody understands that our packages are really good and as competitive as larger institutions.
Matt Peiken: So this isn't necessarily a new program so much. It's more just... The university needing to amplify out to the public.
We offer these kinds of incentives and programs. Is that correct?
Marcio Moreno: I think that's correct. I think that what we have been doing here is just making sure that everything is in the right place, making sure that all the initiative that we have been doing in the past are actually successful and we have confirmed that and playing with numbers, making sure that the models work and like I said, saying it out loud, we want to make sure that everybody understand what we are going for UNC Asheville is actually very strong in access for for affordability.
This is an enrollment strategy that matches perfectly we, what the university was already trying to do.
Matt Peiken: You mentioned early in our conversation, there were things the university has tried in the past that didn't work, things that did work. Can you give me a sense of things that didn't work?
And then we'll talk about the things that have worked that now are... Codified in Access Asheville.
Marcio Moreno: Sure, we have seen the different ways to do it financially. Traditional packages usually start with GPA.
SAT with ACT our reality right now is that those course are not being used because they have been waived for a couple of years. So it was time to take a look at that.
Matt Peiken: They have been what for a couple of years?
Marcio Moreno: Waived. Oh, waived. Thank you. This is the last year that we actually are making decisions based on, on, without course students are more than welcome to send those course but it's not mandatory.
The university have also. Use and or try formulas using a rank in class, and I think that we have realized that simpler works better. We have. We have simplified the formulas that we are using now to make sure that everybody understands a simpler for families. Trying to break barriers. That's something that enrollment is always trying to do.
Identify what's difficult and what makes sense for fam. Cause sometimes you work with something in enrollment or in admissions that makes sense to you but families just don't follow the same thinking. So simplifying is always the key here.
Matt Peiken: From what I understand, this is also part of a national. recognition that S. A. T. S. And other sort of universal testing systems. There is a equity issue there, right? That there's that cultural issues and equity issues in terms of how these tests are administered. Am I right in that? That's part of what This university, UNC Asheville, is looking at historical, cultural dynamics and equity issues in taking that off the table in terms of those scores being part of admissions.
Marcio Moreno: That's a very hot topic. In North Carolina, we follow the UNC system. So it's not a institution by institution decision. The system is the one that's going to tell us how to do it. I think that in the next couple of months, it will be reviewed. And in the spring, the final decision of either continuing the waiver or not is going to be, it's going to be actually explain and put out as an international students, I can tell you that yes it's very difficult to come from a different culture, different background adjust to different type of testing, different type of questions.
So it definitely has impact on the way you are raised, the way you are presented in your educational background.
Michael Strysick: I think you're correct in pointing out, too, that it's really been a nationwide conversation. I don't know the exact statistics, but I would venture to say that probably half, if not a little bit more, than all colleges and universities across the nation have.
Gone test optional for standardized test. I would also point out that the LSAT, which is the key test for law school admission that will go away starting in 2025. So there's been a look at standardized testing on broader levels. I don't know that the MCAT has been considered at all, but actually the LSAT will change and start in 2025.
Matt Peiken: That's a seismic shift. Yeah. Because that's what everything was based on, right? The LSAT. Yeah.
Michael Strysick: But I think as Marcio is explaining admission has really been treated more holistically and looking at different barometers, different components to consider if, is a good match for the institution.
I would say at the same time, UNC Asheville has really worked on strengthening its commitment to student success. And so we have really rethought the services that we provide for students. We have strong orientation programs right from the start when they come in. We have a... team of student success specialists.
We have special peer mentoring programs that are going on as well. We are really committed to the success of students if they come here, if they're willing to work hard and put in the time and effort. We really want to make sure that they succeed. And again, Access Asheville is, Really an extension of UNC Asheville's mission and commitment to access and affordability.
Matt Peiken: And you mentioned, Marcio that at least when we were talking about standardized testing, you're following what the UNC guidelines are. How does Access Asheville... Are other UNC schools doing similar things or are you finding loopholes, is the university finding loopholes to make UNC Asheville more accessible in ways that are unique in the UNC system?
Marcio Moreno: Absolutely, we're always trying to find out different ways, creative ways to bring our name to the top. We compete with largest institutions, we compete with very creative enrollment initiatives. So we are always going to be trying to looking for those ways that, that we can highlight where we are good at.
We love the opportunities to lead the pack in this
Matt Peiken: case.
Yeah. What is UNC Asheville doing that is at least in the UNC system and maybe larger, maybe wider, you can give me some context to this. What is UNC Asheville doing that's unique or groundbreaking at the front of the pack that other universities you think will end up adopting or having to.
Marcio Moreno: think I think actually this is the best example. I have received more than seven calls from all from sister institutions and they want to know how we are doing it. And they want to really under understand the model. We have been blessed again that we are in a position, that we have the data because it's very important.
You need to understand really what you have been doing in the past. 'cause you cannot mix. Changes like that from one season to the next. So we have been very friendly with everybody and telling them what type of homework they need to start doing. But I can tell you all the universities are very interested in, in, in trying to find out different ways or similar ways to be attractive in something like this.
Matt Peiken: Let's break this down. So right now, You're offering and correct me if I'm wrong in this UNC Asheville will be offering free tuition for any families in state or out of state or is it strictly in state to any families that are under 80, 000 of household income.
Is that correct? Adjusted gross income. Adjusted gross income. That's quite a high figure. That's not poverty level. So that seems a pretty bold move. How many of your students right now, percentage wise, would qualify for that free tuition who right now are not?
Michael Strysick: What we officially say is we guarantee full tuition and fees, and the fees component is important because I think the UNC system is committed to access and affordability, and they've tried different models.
NC Promise is one approach that's been taken at four of the system campuses.
Matt Peiken: Hold your thought. I want to give context here. Western Carolina University is one of these that offers 500 cost per Year or semester? Per semester. So I just wanted to explain what that was.
Michael Strysick: For tuition. Now, that doesn't cover fees.
And NC Promise is also offered to students both in state and out of state. The out of state cost is higher. 2, 500. 2, 500 per semester, so a thousand year in state, five thousand year out of state for tuition. It does not cover the fees.
Matt Peiken: Yeah how much are fees comparatively to tuition?
Marcio Moreno: Fees change from university to university, but it's going to be between three, four, five thousand dollars.
Michael Strysick: Wow. Okay. A year. So that's pretty significant. That is. And, tuition has been frozen in the UNC system for, I think, seven years now. And President Peter Hans has indicated his interest in making sure that it's frozen again.
In the next year as well. So I, I think there have been attempts to really make an education accessible and affordable. Chapel Hill has rolled out a similar program a little bit earlier. I think that part of what we are trying to do here is help families understand that and education could be affordable and accessible.
We had an increase this past year of first generation students and Pell eligible students. And I think for families who have never attended college themselves. They don't understand how all of this works. So I think our being able to say, This is accessible. This is what we're offering. It is hopefully going to, as Marcio has said eloquently, break down barriers.
Matt Peiken: And also, more context, when I went to college, my cost at a state university in California was 367 a semester. That was my cost. I spent two thirds of my last student loan on my drum set. That's how I was, and I still have those drums. Marcio, we were talking about how, Families with an adjusted gross income of 80, 000 or under, free tuition and fees, the university is absorbing that cost, you have faculty costs, you have other expenses, do you have a sense of how much this is going to take out of raw revenue?
For the university every year,
Marcio Moreno: believe it or not, actually, the models that we have right now are calling for a very similar budget, a that we use in the in past years for financially, the number is not changing that much. How is that possible? Because this is a last dollar award, and that's why we're asking the students to.
Complete the FAFSA to be residents and based on that... Complete the what, did you say? The FAFSA the free application for federal student aid. That's a requirement. I'll get
Matt Peiken: the acronym. I just wanted to be clear with that. Sure. F A F S A.
Marcio Moreno: Okay. Thank you. It's not as easy as thinking, hey, my family doesn't make enough money.
I'm gonna be a good candidate for this. They have to complete all the requirements. They have to file the FAFSA by a certain date. Everything needs to be in place for us to, to review those packages. We are going to put everybody through the same steps.
They are going to be check against bail eligibility state grants institutional money. Scholarship and then they're going to be reviewed to be how close they are to tuition and fees. And then we're going to apply the rest to make sure that everybody is at the same level at
Matt Peiken: the same level of tuition and fees.
Okay, tuition and fees. So I'm still trying to figure out how let's just on a very raw level right now. You're at about what? 2900 students you're saying. Access Asheville really isn't going to change the way things are done so much now, it just codifies and makes it uniform so everybody understands what what kind of incentives there are, whereas maybe they didn't understand before, but let's say of those 2, 900 students that had.
Half of them are paying full tuition. Just let's just say hypothetically half are paying full tuition. So somewhere around the neighborhood of 1, 400, 1, 500 students are paying full tuition. If you raise your student base up, let's say you're able to attract 500 more students this next year, but only maybe a quarter of them are paying full tuition, you're losing.
Revenue, you're gaining students, but the that when you have more students, you have more people to serve it taxes the system or your professors and others have to serve more students. I'm just wondering. It seems like UNC Asheville on a financial level will be taking some kind of a hit here.
I don't understand and not that they shouldn't. I'm just trying to get a sense of what you and your colleagues when you were doing the math and running the data, how much you thought this was We're going to have to take this on the chin to X thousand dollars a year. What are you thinking there?
Marcio Moreno: I think that the important point here is and what we want everybody to understand and we want families to understand is a Our financial aid packaging has been very good in the past.
And we know that not everybody is going to meet all the requirements for this. But this is actually giving the opportunity to families to get interested, to ask questions, to talk to financial aid. We want them to apply. And if they don't meet the requirements for Access Asheville, we're going to put a very strong financial package, which we already do already.
Matt Peiken: I understand. So even if they don't qualify necessarily for Access Asheville, Under existing programs that you have your look you would work your best to get them in there. So what you're saying, if I can distill this down, that any cost to the university would be negligible because you're already offering certain level of financial aid packages and that if anything, and again, I'm correct me if I'm wrong here.
I'm trying to understand. So if you increase your student base based on these programs, it's not costing the university money. You're just increasing your enrollment generally. Is that right?
Marcio Moreno: I think that's fair to say.
Matt Peiken: Okay. This seems like an incredible deal. If I were a family here, of moderate means, I would look to send my kid to a school that was offering this kind of package. What do you think is the main challenge now in terms of increasing the enrollment? You said this was your main goal. You and your colleagues want to increase enrollment, get back to that 3, 800 or even go higher.
What are the main challenges to do that?
Marcio Moreno: Convincing families, convincing the public that this is possible. I, myself, I go out, I just did a couple of high school programs, and just like you are asking me questions like that, I have families coming and they are asking, is this really true? How can you do that?
So I think that there's a lot of interest in the community, a lot of interest in the student population. Yeah, we want everybody to go ahead and apply and talk to us. We are ready to talk to everybody. FAFSA is going to be available later in December, which is a big change with the new FAFSA Simplification Act.
We are ready to start looking at all those numbers. And work together to put the best package in front of them. And so they can actually compare how the numbers look for us against other universities.
Matt Peiken: I don't remember in the yesteryear schools competing for students, actually using the word we're competing for students in the way that universities are today.
You've touched on other schools are doing things too. Some are at the front of the pack. Others you've had seven calls from other colleges and universities. How are you doing this? What conditions on the ground are lighting a fire under this competition? Why is there such competition now for students
we already talked on about a population drop. Stemming from 2008. What other factors are playing into heightening the competitive nature that universities such as yours are under for students?
Marcio Moreno: Just like you said, the decline is there. When universities put their numbers out, you usually see a couple of universities that actually did not meet goals.
Those universities the next year are gonna come back with very aggressive enrollment strategies. It's very easy to apply every year. Students are actually are applying to more universities. When I started enrollment, it was probably an average of 5, 6 applications that each student was actually sending.
Right now, I think that number is closer to 9 and 10. So that makes enrollment more difficult for everybody because you cannot keep using the same formulas. It's not that we have more students. We have more applications, but we have the same or less students applying for the same amount of seats. So that's why Putting out initiatives like this is so important for everybody.
Michael Strysick: I would just add to we have long said that this is an exceptional education that's affordable. And I think maybe people haven't always understood that or believe that by simply saying This is an exceptional education that's affordable. So how affordable is it? This is how affordable it is.
If your family makes 80, 000 or less adjusted gross income, we guarantee full tuition and fees. That's how affordable we are. So I think as you've said, it's codifying a general financial aid approach, but codifying it in a way that's really understandable. To, to families. And as you say, if you look at what the median income is in North Carolina, around 65, 000, this is really going to help be a positive impact on middle class North Carolinians as well.
Matt Peiken: Also, getting back to what we were talking about around the college wage premium versus college wealth premium, this kind of wipes out that factor, in a way, by taking away the cost of college, you take out if I have to weigh how much student debt I'm going to carry after graduation, and if that goes away, you're essentially saying that students can come to school here debt free.
And, if they're under that median income, they can complete four years of school here without any debt.
Marcio Moreno: Remember that there's the other cost that they will have to. To afford the housing the books. The meals. But if the student meet criteria, they will be provided with loans like everybody else.
And some of them might even qualify for extra scholarships. So we know that some of these students. We are promising free tuition and fees. Some students will receive more than that.
Matt Peiken: Oh, so on top of that, they can still, they're still eligible, like Pell grants and things like that.
Michael Strysick: Pell is already. Pell is part.
Matt Peiken: Pell is part of Access Asheville.
Marcio Moreno: That's why this is our last dollar scholarship. We are using. Everything that the student is going to be eligible for and we are going to cover the gap.
Matt Peiken: Thank you for clarifying that.
Michael Strysick: But they will be eligible for other scholarships and then loans as well. But I would say that our students graduate with far less debt than the national average and we're proud of that as well. I, it's probably not fair to say that this would mean students would graduate debt free, but it would help them significantly.
We value the current tuition and fees at 7, 461. That's a huge savings in terms of the overall. If you think
Matt Peiken: about that, you multiply that by four. We're looking at between 25, 30, 000 less to attend school. Yeah. Is there anything we haven't talked about? Do you want to close with anything?
Michael Strysick: I think to back up on your point about FAFSA.
FAFSA is the federal financial aid program, and that's what. universities use to help understand the need in terms of need based scholarships, which is different than the merit based. Typically, FAFSA would open in October 1st. Um, And they made a change a few years ago have a structure called prior prior.
So what you would do is give FAFSA permission to look at the prior prior income tax returns to verify your ability to pay for the education. And so FAFSA is making some additional changes. to really simplify understanding how college could be affordable, but they just weren't able to complete everything as quickly as they wanted.
So FAFSA this year did not open October 1st. It's going to open later in December,
Marcio Moreno: sometime in December.
Michael Strysick: But we are encouraging students to apply. Right now to complete the FAFSA in December as soon as they can to make sure that they get all of that done by March 1st in particular for priority consideration.
Matt Peiken: Do you have a cap on enrollment you where you want it to be? How much is too much for this university to handle?
Michael Strysick: I think our conversations right now have been that returning to 3800 is a good goal for us and we know it's going to take us several years to get there. It can't happen overnight and as we get closer to that, we may have additional conversations about how many are too many.
But I think right now we know that's a really good spot for us and it's a place that we want to return to.