Getting more students to enroll is the goal of politicians and higher-education administrators almost everywhere. That’s certainly the case in the University of North Carolina system. Back in 2016, the General Assembly approved of a plan pushed by the system called North Carolina Promise. The idea was to substantially lower tuition and fees for students (both in-state and out) — but only at three schools in remote areas: Western Carolina, UNC-Pembroke, and Elizabeth City State.

Some early data are in and in today’s Martin Center article, Will Rierson takes a look at them.

At each of the institutions, enrollments are up significantly, as are transfers. Does that mean success? Rierson casts doubt on that conclusion, pointing out that the increases at the three campuses seem mostly to come from students who would otherwise have attended another UNC campus. Rierson writes:

But enrollment growth may come from a small crowding-out effect. Three nearby UNC schools had drops in enrollment. UNC-Asheville was the hardest hit, losing slightly more than two percent compared to a year before, and East Carolina University and UNC Wilmington both shrunk by less than one percent. Those schools are roughly in the same regions as the NC Promise participants, with UNCA fewer than 60 miles from WCU, but proximity cannot be pinpointed as the cause for falling enrollment.

One question the enrollment data can’t answer is whether academically marginal students who might be lured into college with low tuition wouldn’t be better off seeking some other sort of training after high school.

I think that Rierson’s conclusion is correct:

NC Promise is certainly a smart political tool. Lawmakers created constituencies at three schools and thousands of students and families are now accustomed to the de facto tuition subsidy. But more time and data is needed to certify that NC Promise is an effective means of broadening college access—and not a diversion from meaningful improvement.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.