classroom_photo (copy)

What would a 50 percent drop in UNC system enrollment look like? It would look something like this.

Randy Ramsey, chairman of the UNC System's Board of Governors, earlier this month asked the chancellors at each campus to come up with scenarios for potential budget cuts of both 25 percent and 50 percent. It was an exercise in worst-case planning in case COVID-19 takes a very bad turn in the fall. 

The UNC System office sent me the plans for each campus late today. I linked to the full 66-page report, which contains the numbers for each UNC System campus, two paragraphs above. It's here, too, if you don't want to scroll back. (Or here, if the links above don't work.)

Here's an excerpt of the report's cover sheet. Note how Ramsey's request for a look at just two scenarios (which I wrote about here) has now morphed into a whole range of possibilities (emphasis mine):

"The System Office developed a planning worksheet for FY 2020-21 for compiling this information in a consistent format identifying both potential revenue impact and expense levers System-wide and for each institution. The seven potential scenarios assume various enrollment decreases, ranging from a minimum of 2% through a maximum of 50% with an emphasis on the -2% to -10% models. Variable decrease in revenue and expenses were also incorporated into each financial model."

I scrolled down to the section of the report on UNCG, one of Greensboro's two state universities. A 2 percent decline in enrollment would mean a one-year loss of $28.6 million. A 50 percent decline would cost the university $117.5 million, or close to a quarter of its annual revenue. (These numbers don't include any changes in state appropriation.)

A 2 percent is not without damage but seems manageable. But in the worst-case 50-percent scenario, UNCG would lay off or furlough hundreds of tenured and non-tenured faculty as well as staff across the university, close some residence halls, shut down some academic programs, cut multiple sports to the point that it might have to drop down to Division III. It's an ugly picture, one that you'll have to read for yourself to fully appreciate.

"In the most extreme scenarios, the budget reduction would do damage with significant lasting negative impacts," Chancellor Frank Gilliam wrote. "UNCG would be less able, or potentially unable, to effectively prepare thousands of students for productive careers in the North Carolina workforce, creating a long-term negative impact on our economy. More immediately, the livelihoods of hundreds and perhaps thousands of employees would be adversely affected — particularly given that public higher education is such a labor- and capital-intensive industry."

At neighboring N.C. A&T, the numbers look similar. A worst-case 50 percent drop in enrollment would cost A&T nearly $81.5 million, or 26 percent of its annual revenue. A worst-case scenario looks much the same — and just as ugly — as UNCG's: lots of employee layoffs and furloughs, many dorms and the dining hall would be closed, research would be suspended, sports would be cut, etc.

"It is important to note that budget reductions at the magnitude of 25% and 50% would significantly impact the operations of the University and would require flexibility to execute actions that campuses currently do not possess," Chancellor Harold Martin wrote.

Winston-Salem State (page 63) and UNC School of the Arts (page 57) also are included. A 50 percent budget cut looks just as grim there, too.

Remember: The UNC System has not cut campus budgets in response to COVID-19. And the word from Chapel Hill and elsewhere is that enrollment will be up at some schools this fall and down (but not catastrophically so) at others and more or less flat across the state university system. For now, this is a theoretical exercise.

Who knows at this point what the fall will hold. But this report should give everyone some idea of what could happen on campus whenever we do find out.

Staff writer John Newsom covers higher education for the News & Record of Greensboro and the Winston-Salem Journal.

Have something to say about this blog post? Email him at You can also follow him on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

Support his coverage of higher education. Click here and here to learn about digital subscriptions the News & Record and the Journal.

Recommended for you

Load comments