How the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill partnered with API to develop a global and sustainable first-year experience that exceeded enrollment targets and built close student cohorts.
- UNC wanted to fulfill its “Global Guarantee” – the promise that a global education is available to every student.
- The university had more applicants for first year enrollment than they could accept.
- Spring semester housing and on-campus population tends to be lower, allowing for more students to join the campus in spring.
UNC partnered with API to develop a global and sustainable first-year experience, called Carolina Global Launch (CGL), that exceeded enrollment targets and built close student cohorts.
- More than 25% of first-year students requested information about CGL in the 2021-2022 application cycle.
- Exceeded initial interest goals by 50%.
- Exceeded enrollment goal for inaugural program by 20%
- 100% participation in on-campus pre-orientation
- Program provides a differentiation point for prospective students, with multiple students applying to UNC specifically because of the opportunity to participate in the Carolina Global Launch program.
- Provide a pathway to living up to their Global Guarantee, a commitment to all students to have a global experience as part of their degree plan.
The Global Guarantee
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill routinely ranks as one of the best college towns and best places to live in the United States. Indeed, Chapel Hill seems to have it all, from live music and eclectic dining to quiet trails and parks, as well as diverse social, cultural and professional opportunities that flow between the campus and town. Academically speaking, UNC rivals the best with a wide variety of college majors to suit any degree-seeker’s demands. The UNC team also proudly promotes their Global Guarantee – a promise that a global education is available to every student.
By offering students the best menu of global education opportunities possible, the Global Guarantee helps UNC students fulfill their potential to become the next generation of global leaders, with the global knowledge, skills and mindset to address the world’s greatest challenges. This commitment is one they firmly believe in; however, Ben Briggs, Program Director, Study Abroad Office at UNC Chapel Hill, noted, “We have been looking for ways to expand our global program offerings to first year students. Without it, as many as a quarter of our students were being excluded from our Global Guarantee. So, we asked ourselves, ‘How can change that?’”
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Searching for options, leaders of the Study Abroad and Global Affairs Offices, including Jason Kinnear, the Associate Dean of Study Abroad & Exchanges, and Heather Ward, Associate Provost for Global Affairs, started working quickly to gain support from departments across the campus. One office they knew would be key was the Admissions office. Over the next two years, they built a team that included Briggs, and Robert Noffsinger, Senior Assistant Director, Admissions at UNC Chapel Hill. Both offices saw the challenge as a potential opportunity and set to work. Kinnear said, “From an institutional standpoint, we saw this as a mutually beneficial partnership between our two offices and many others here at the university.”
This was because the Admissions office was facing its own set of challenges, and saw a first year program as a potential solution to one of their largest frustrations: the need to turn thousands of prospective students away. In the 2020-2021 application cycle, UNC received roughly 57,000 first-year applications, while they were only able to enroll around 4,400. Noffsinger said, “Just looking at these numbers, it’s obvious we have to turn down a number of students who would otherwise thrive here at the university. The idea of saying ‘Yes’ to more students as a result of a first-year program is very important to us at UNC.”
The campus also looks very different from one semester to the next, opening up another potential opportunity. Noffinger noted, “Many students graduate in December or choose to study abroad in the spring. As such, the university has more housing during the spring semester to accommodate more students on campus.”
Kinnear and Ward knew that UNC would need external help as well, and sought out a partner to help them execute the program with students abroad. Having worked with Academic Programs International (API) since 2015, they reached out to discuss deepening the partnership between UNC and API.
UNC chose API as their single provider to help their Tarheels feel at home in two places at once — both abroad and in Chapel Hill. Kinnear shared that UNC and API made a commitment to each other to make the most of this experience and take a deeper dive on the relationship.
Kinnear continued, “Since 2019 we have been meeting weekly with API every single Monday. It’s been hugely beneficial, not only on a professional level as we execute this program, but also on a personal level, getting to know the people that you work with at a different organization so well. I think we have been quicker to react to new requests because we’re always meeting and we are flexible to meet very specific goals. As a result, it’s been a much easier student experience.”
During these weekly sessions, the team discusses issues as they’re happening. This allows for quicker reaction times and API and UNC to put the right people in place to solve problems. As a result students receive as consistently reliable, holistic, and comprehensive experience as possible.
Beyond that, the weekly meetings have helped UNC gain alignment internally. “I cannot emphasize enough that without the perspective of all parties involved, CGL simply wouldn’t be possible. Here in admissions, we speak with prospective students all the time. But, we don’t speak to students about how to arrange course work at a global university or the logistics of a flight for 30 different individual students. Each stakeholder has a skillset that helps us with this program that we can learn so we can build it out as an entire body. Organization and communication year-round are absolutely vital in terms of developing this.” says Noffsinger.
According to Briggs, because this is a first-year experience, site selection was a crucial decision. “First-year students are a unique cohort. They may have some unique needs that a third- or fourth-year student wouldn’t have,” he said. By January of 2020, the collective UNC and API team had identified two universities in Scotland and Ireland that met their requirements for a first year student program, specifically:
- The ability to provide remarkable student services and meet the unique challenges associated with first-year cohorts.
- Alignment with UNC’s high academic standards, particularly the ability to:
- Map and pre-approve a wide selection of general education classes for all students.
- Provide a distinct set of options for STEM majors.
- Provided access to safe and inviting campuses with proximity to a large urban area.
At the same time, admissions had also released decisions for students who would be in the first fall cohort. However, like many other plans, COVID-19 caused the program to be canceled in April of 2020. The team decided that while COVID-19 may delay the start of the program, it would not derail it.
Briggs said, “This really stunk, to be honest, but it wasn’t all dark spots. It really gave us time to reflect on our process, how we were moving forward, and where we were running this program.” API and UNC used the time to evaluate their application process, streamline messaging, and develop a third cohort site in Spain.
3, 2, 1 . . . Take Off!
After a pause, the program was set to re-launch during the fall of 2021 with the goal of 60 students across the three sites. The team was hopeful, but not sure what to expect. What they got was a huge surprise.
Of the roughly 57,000 first-year applications in the 2021 – 2022 cycle, more than 25% of first-year students requested to learn more about CGL. By May 1st of 2021, 90 students had indicated they wanted to participate. This 50% increase in initial interest was substantially more than the team had anticipated and incredibly exciting for all. The COVID surge across Europe that summer trimmed a few participants from the program, but its inaugural launch still went off with 72 students across all three locations — exceeding original enrollment goals by 20%.
According to Noffsinger, “Not only did this go beyond our goal of what we anticipated, we also had a number of students indicate they were just the tiniest bit disappointed that they were only admitted to UNC. In the time since, I’ve spoken to about 25 students individually who applied to UNC specifically because of the first-year Global program.” This helped them meet the goal of attracting really globally curious students who would come back to enrich the UNC campus.
For Briggs and the rest of the team, the best part was just beginning. He said, “We had the opportunity to visit our three sites in Spain, Ireland and Scotland with each cohort of students as we kicked the program off. It was incredible to see the program in action and for the students to see UNC representatives abroad as well. Seeing the UNC team there alongside API to help them move in and be part of their on-site orientation served as an additional touchpoint for students, connecting them back to our campus even while abroad their first semester.”
Creating a Carolina Cohort
One area the team definitely wanted to watch closely was how this group of students who studied abroad in semester one would attach and bond to the UNC brand, campus and community. The great news is, they did, in part because of a great communication plan created by the UNC team.
In addition to pre-departure and on-site orientations, UNC offered the 2022 cohort more communication touch points. This included the opportunity for participants and parents from the new cohort to meet with students and parents from the 2021 cohort to ask questions and gain more understanding.
Additionally, they held an in-person event on campus so students could feel connected to campus once they returned and meet their cohort in person before traveling together. The event received a 100% participation rate.
“That’s almost unheard of in admissions. I think it speaks to not only the excitement of students for the program, but just how needed an event like this was.” said Noffsinger.
Noffsinger also shared that when it comes to first-year experiences, there’s no such thing as too much communication, “First-year students have unique needs and require consistent and open lines of communication. In the future we’ll create more orientations like this, as well as more foundational events on campus pre-departure. Our goal is to help students feel confident and connected to UNC before the experience even begins.”
The Most Rewarding Parts
Kinnear concluded, “The most rewarding part of the CGL program is the paradigm shift experienced by our students while studying abroad. We can see students gaining that global perspective, growing as individuals, and sharing what they learned with our campus community back in Chapel Hill.”
Students who participated in the Fall 2021 CGL cohort returned to campus with a more global perspective and many were able to draw intercultural connections between their locations abroad and Chapel Hill. One Spain student shared this in their reflection of the experience, “…you’ll grow so much as a person, and hopefully you’ll come back feeling really happy like I did…I had a profound, amazing experience. In Spain, people were warm and conversational. The conversations were dynamic and engaging. They have a lack of superficiality and a lack of restraint. Now that I’ve experienced that, I want to carry that over to my life here.”
UNC continues to offer and expand the CGL program in hopes it will not only continue to differentiate the school, but also attract more global-curious students and enrich their campus for years to come.
If you’re interested learning more, here’s how you can customize a similar program with API!