The Right Stuff: Getting in at N.C. State

A unique admissions system helps NC State balance the limited number of slots in its freshman class with its land-grant mission to serve the state. When students apply for admission, they must choose a college. Their choice could make the difference between getting in or not.
Parents file into the Withers Hall auditorium one Saturday in February with the somber air of jurors returning from deliberation. This is just an information session for freshman applicants and their families at the College of Design. But try using the word “just” with 50 parents who know that at that moment, down the street at Brooks Hall, their 17-year-old babies are fighting for a spot in the fall freshman class.

Jackie Quick and her husband, Clyde, have come from Burlington to support their son, Brian, as he interviews for admission to the graphic design program. Clyde is cool, but Jackie is leaning forward in her chair, her knees bouncing gently.

“I’m nervous,” she says. “Brian’s nervous. I heard there were only 40 spots for graphic design this year.”

The undergraduate-admissions office, which does an initial review of academic qualifications, forwarded to Design administrators slightly more than half the 1,000 applications. On this day, Brian is vying for one of 126 final slots. His parents learn during the session, though, that the college will admit only 28 graphic design students this year. The other 99 will be split in varying proportions among its four other majors. Another month will pass before they find out that Brian snagged a slot in NC State’s most selective college.

A week later, at the College of Textiles’ open house on Centennial Campus, exclusivity takes a back seat to openness. The event is meant to show off Textiles as one of the steeds in NC State’s stable of technology racehorses. Exhibits introduce visitors to color science, fire-resistant suits and medical textiles, among other college attractions.

But for Textiles, which has the highest acceptance rate on campus (accepting 199 of 256 freshmen applicants and enrolling 130 in fall 2004), the focal point is the admissions-information table on the second floor. High school students get lots of personal attention when they stop here to visit with Teresa Langley, director of distance education and academic services.

Langley leads Josh Gager, a high school senior from Charleston, S.C., and his father, John, to a large hall with textile-engineering exhibits about nanoscience. She rustles up a faculty member to talk with Josh. Juan Hinestroza, a young, smiling and enthusiastic assistant professor with brainy, black-rimmed glasses, jumps in with his sales pitch. After several minutes of back-and-forth about Textiles’ merits, Hinestroza calls over three current students to continue the talk.

“I’m sure we would be happy to have you here,” Hinestroza says.

It’s one admissions process, but two very different college experiences. It’s what applicants face today. The state’s largest university gets the most in-state applications of the UNC System’s 16 campuses, and total applications are going up. The number of spots in each freshman class is predetermined. There were 3,847 slots in fall 2004. Nearly 14,000 people applied to fill them, up about 8 percent from 2003.

Academic standards are on the rise, too.

The larger the applicant pool, the more selective colleges can be, and NC State’s numbers are up across all qualifiers. For example, the number of freshmen from the top 10 percent of their high school class rose from 34.8 percent in 2001 to 42.8 percent last year.

That increased competition means that students who might have gotten a “Welcome to the Pack” letter from the admissions office a few years ago might now get a “We regret to inform you” letter instead. But the difference between acceptance and rejection depends on more than grades, SAT scores or extracurricular activities. Thanks to NC State’s position as a land-grant university bound to serve the state’s needs, the admissions system takes into account each applicant’s chosen major. That choice could tip the final decision either way.

As far back as admissions officers can recall, NC State has required applicants to select a first and second choice among the colleges for which they want to be considered. No other UNC System school does this. At UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, all applicants are lumped together for the freshman selection process and enrolled in an academic program called General College. Students transfer after two years to a specific major in the College of Arts & Sciences or in a school program such as journalism or nursing. But at NC State, admitted students are bound to the college—and the major field of study that they choose—from the day they apply, barring midcareer transfers.

The exception is First Year College, the newest of the 10 undergraduate colleges, started in 1995 to orient undecided students to NC State’s programs. As the name implies, students who choose it on their applications and enroll must be accepted by and transfer to one of the other academic colleges after their first year.

“The admissions officers are in constant dialogue with the colleges as they are reviewing applications,” says Thomas Conway, vice provost for enrollment management. “So whenever they read an application, it’s not just reading it for admissibility to the university in general. It’s being read for admissibility to the program that the student has applied to.”

The reason is that part of NC State’s mission, perhaps more so than any other campus in the UNC System, is to send students into the working world to thrive in industries that have traditionally been critical to the state economy. That’s why NC State has one of the nation’s strongest textiles colleges, forestry and wood and paper science programs (within the College of Natural Resources) and, along with N.C. A&T, one of only two agriculture-degree paths in the state. By requiring applicants to commit to a field of study from day one, the university can manage its relationship with those industries, which depend on qualified graduates entering the work force.

And from that perspective, the system seems to be working. The College of Natural Resources consistently places 90 to 100 percent of paper science and engineering and environmental technology graduates. At Textiles, 60 percent of students who used the college’s career-placement services in 2003-04 went to work in textiles or textiles-related jobs, says Kent Hester, director of student and career services. The average starting salary for textiles students graduating in 2004 was more than $39,000. The overall placement rate was 97 percent.

“We haven’t had an overall placement rate less than 95 percent in the past decade or more,” Hester says. “Individual degree programs, like textile engineering, have enjoyed placement rates close to 100 percent almost every year since the degree started in the late 1980s.”

But, on the front end of the process, college-based admissions can seem unfair. Applicants, no matter how strong their qualifications, don’t get into NC State unless they’re accepted by their first or second choice of colleges. Sometimes applicants with a high GPA, good SAT scores and a lofty class rank are turned away from more selective colleges, while students with average credentials but strong interest in a traditional industry are admitted to another college.

Having would-be students compete against peers within their field of study is a more equitable way to build a vocationally diverse student body, Conway says.

“We could admit everybody to a general college and say, ‘OK, we’re going to let everybody fall into their various areas as they sort themselves out later,’ ” he says. “But then you run the risk of choking your system. We’d end up with a large number of people who want an area of study where you don’t have the capacity to provide a quality education for that number of students.”

The Haves, the Have-Nots and the Have-Too-Manys

One college that likely would be choked is Management, which already is feeling a pinch, says Erin Dixon, its admissions director. Management became a college in 1992 when its degree programs were spun out of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. It has been all growth, all the time, since then. With about 1,800 students, business management is now NC State’s most popular major.

The college got nearly 1,500 applications for a 2005 freshman class of about 280. But Dixon guesses it will exceed that cap, just as it did last year when it enrolled 321 students—51 more than planned.

“We have, for the past several years, surpassed budgeted enrollment goals,” Dixon says. “Our faculty’s average teaching load is very high.”

The growing popularity of the sportsmanagement concentration in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management has presented a similar challenge in the College of Natural Resources, says Adrianna Kirkman, the college’s associate dean for academic affairs. “When enrollment is too high, we can’t offer the kinds of activities that provide a quality educational experience,” she says. “Experiences such as service learning, site visits for team projects and internships are essential for our programs.”

But some colleges and programs face a different kind of balancing act. While management is hot, NC State’s traditional majors in textiles, agriculture, forestry and wood science—those most tied to the industries the university was chartered to support—are, well, lukewarm.

That’s due, in part, to the public perception that those programs are artifacts of the old economy. In the minds of many, textiles is all about socks and underwear, forestry is rife with lumberjacks and agriculture is all plows and sows.

Of course, university officials are quick to point out that this isn’t the case. Fewer than 20 percent of Textiles graduates end up in jobs related to traditional manufacturing—and the coursework at the college is tailored to reflect those changes.

“The areas our graduates now enter include… sales and marketing, research and development, product development, supply-chain management, merchandising, design, styling, sourcing, retail management, biomedical, nonwovens, process improvement and quality systems,” Hester says.

But so far, those types of opportunities haven’t led to more buzz in high school classrooms. As Tommy Griffin, director of undergraduate admissions, puts it, “Even though there are tremendous job opportunities in poultry science, students may not see it as the ‘in and exciting’ kind of major at this point.”

Fewer applicants pursue those programs as a result. Those who do, on average, have lower SAT scores and high school GPAs than applicants to other colleges.

If less-popular colleges held applicants to the same academic standards as Engineering, they would have trouble meeting enrollment goals each year. As it is, the university’s rising academic standards have made it more difficult. For example, NC State accepted 72 percent of 10,534 applicants in 1995, compared with fewer than 59 percent of 13,947 applicants in 2004.

Terry Brasier, associate director of student services at Textiles, says that though the 700-student college is the largest of its kind in the world, it’s the second-smallest at NC State. Small changes in the number of Textiles applicants the admissions office accepts can impact the college’s enrollment.

In fact, in 2002, there was a “good bit of talk about raising the university’s national standing,” according to Griffin. A decision to decrease the size of the freshman class, he says, naturally raised all academic standards, including SAT scores, and made admissions more competitive. That year, Textiles’ acceptance rate dropped from 80 percent to 71 percent, and the college, used to seeing a freshman class of as many as 150, enrolled 96—the smallest class in at least 10 years.

“I definitely understand the theory behind that—that the better students you bring in, the better their retention rates and performance while in college,” Brasier says. “But at the same time, you’ve got to find a happy medium between the application numbers and the quality of students.”

The balancing act appears to be working. The six-year graduation rates (used most often in regional and national comparisons) for the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Natural Resources and Textiles are generally slightly above the university average, Conway says.

Kirkman says the admissions goal at Natural Resources is about more than graduation rates. It’s also about producing graduates who can meet the needs of industries in North Carolina. Enrollment targets, she says, should take into account the supply of jobs in fields such as forestry and wood and paper science. The College of Natural Resources received 96 applications last fall for the forestry program and 47 for the wood and paper science program. It enrolled 39 and 32, respectively. “There are only so many jobs out there in the paper industry, so we don’t want 300 students in that program,” Kirkman says. “However, we do want enough. We want to turn out our fair share of engineers for the industry.”

Increased academic standards at NC State have made the admissions side of her job harder, Kirkman says. But, like Brasier and Ken Esbenshade, associate dean and director of academic programs at CALS, she depends on the admissions office to look beyond an applicant’s academic qualifications to help her fill spots in the forestry and wood and paper science departments.

Though all applications go through the undergraduate-admissions office first for review, there are two common scenarios in which Griffin and his staff might involve individual colleges in their decision. One is for applicants to the College of Design. All its potential students must present work samples and, in most of its majors, interview with a faculty member.

The other is for applicants to industry-specific programs, such as forestry. They might have a high level of interest but a less-than-stellar academic record. “Maybe they have SAT scores right at 1,000, but the student wants to major in forest management, they have lots of outdoor activities, they’ve been a Boy or Girl Scout, and they live in a rural area with a family that owns timber and is familiar with the industry,” Griffin says. “With a student like that, we’d say, ‘Let’s let the college look at that student and give us a recommendation.’ ”

“Between the commitment to the industry and the kinds of people who would like to do the kinds of jobs that are available out there, admissions is wrestling with this all the time, and so are we as a college,” Kirkman says. “Just focusing on the numbers is not going to necessarily achieve the right result.”

Sorting Fact From Fiction

Applicants to NC State don’t always make it easy on admissions officers trying to find the right balance. The higher the stakes get and the more competitive the quest for admission, the savvier they become.

“Students who are just trying to get in here will sometimes declare an agriculture major, but they’re not truly interested in the ag program,” Esbenshade says. “They think as long as they end up inside the doors of North Carolina State University, then they can go ahead and shed that shackle of an ag degree and go on to study management or engineering. Well, that doesn’t really work.”

It doesn’t work for several reasons. Transferring from one college to another is difficult. It requires the same level of scrutiny as freshman admissions; students receive no extra points for having been admitted to NC State through another program. Transfer applicants to Design still must submit a portfolio, for example. And colleges look for evidence of interest in the area of study and for satisfactory coursework completed in their foundation classes. Some more-selective programs set high GPA requirements for internal transfers.

This is why applicants who aren’t accepted to Design as freshmen are advised in their “postdenial counseling” session to consider attending a design program at another school rather than enroll at NC State through their second-choice college, says Marva Motley, assistant dean for student affairs at Design. They’d have a far better chance of transferring to NC State with relevant coursework than just waiting around in another college.

“Where students can get into difficulty is when they make the erroneous assumption that starting off in First Year College, just getting into NC State, puts them into the position of moving into the major they really wanted to start with,” says Conway, the vice provost for enrollment management. “[The FYC] is truly only for the undecided student. It would be trying to get [a decided student] to explore the university in ways they have no interest in doing, and they wind up disappointed.”

Students also should note, Conway says, that competition for admission is increasing for FYC just as it is in most colleges. Indeed, 60 percent of applicants were accepted to FYC in 2004, down from 65 percent in 2003. In the same time, Management’s acceptance rate dropped from 56 to 52 percent, while Textiles’ acceptance rate stayed at 78 percent.

The colleges at NC State are becoming as savvy about their recruiting efforts as students are about the admissions process. Their representatives know how to read an application for genuine interest in their programs, especially those that serve specific industries.

At CALS, Esbenshade looks for applicants who seem committed to a career in agriculture and list activities such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America. And because CALS has a faculty member in every extension office across the state, its contacts can promote the college to students learning about agriculture in their high schools. CALS often gets calls from teachers and agents recommending a student for the college.

Textiles administrators, Brasier says, know most applicants’ names by the time they apply. They’ve met during summer programs, at the open house or during one of the college’s many demonstrations to high school classes, which is how Josh Gager learned about NC State. Almost every college, in fact, has a program in which its representatives visit or teach high school classes, helping generate interest while meeting the university’s outreach mission.

Even at the College of Engineering, considered one of NC State’s most selective, administrators aren’t resting on their laurels. They know their recruiting efforts work. Eighty percent of admitted students who visit the college enroll.

“We are popular, and yet the students we’re interested in are the same ones that many engineering schools are interested in,” says Kay Leager, director of enrollment management at the college. “You can’t take anything for granted. Students will visit us and say, ‘We were at Georgia Tech last week, and we’re going to Virginia Tech next week.’ So we know they are shopping.”

With 14,000 applications a year, one might wonder why recruiting is necessary. Why all the public-education efforts? The reason, Conway says, is that despite NC State’s 118-year history, many people still don’t understand the university’s mission or how the competition for freshman slots has increased.

“One of the things we find—and this is an NC State-peculiar issue—is that when people apply to NC State, they view it as very different than when they apply to some of the other institutions that we are closer to in character,” he says. “They assume the competition is stiffer at Chapel Hill or Wake Forest or Davidson. What has happened at the undergraduate level is that students have tended to make their decisions based on national rankings and upon popularity.

One popular indicator, U.S. News & World Report, ranked NC State 39th among public universities. (The Lombardi Program for Measuring University Performance ranked NC State 24th among public research universities in December 2004). That, Conway says, is in part because the ranking system doesn’t take into account the university’s need to balance its selectivity against its commitment to provide the state with a mix of majors that are “important to the citizenry in general.”

Factors used by U.S. News & World Report to compile the selectivity element of its ranking equation are based strictly on academic indicators and don’t take into account the varied characteristics—such as suitability for a particular major—that NC State admissions officers consider. And no matter how competitive NC State becomes, these special considerations aren’t likely to go away anytime soon.

“We’re not going to become a strictly elite institution that only looks at those traditional variables,” Conway says. “We’re looking at a broad range of variables for admitting students. Because at the end of the day, we will still be the people’s institution.”

Copyright 2005 NC State Alumni Association

Published in NC State magazine, Summer 2005