Percentage of students by county who were admitted to N.C. State University after applying. Carolina Public Press found that the percentages tilt even more dramatically to the west when evaluated on a per capita basis. (Source: N.C. State)

Ever heard the anecdote that North Carolina’s top state universities don’t really want students from Western North Carolina? Turns out it’s not just false, but nearly the opposite of the truth, a Carolina Public Press investigation has found.

Statistics from North Carolina State University in Raleigh show that WNC counties have among the highest acceptance rates for applicants.

While this may run contrary to popular wisdom, it’s not necessarily news to high school counselors who work with students to admission to college. The numbers at N.C. State have some WNC high schools thinking that small schools and increased funding efforts for rural districts are working to the advantage of their students.

The university provided CPP with county-by-county statistics for the number of students who applied, gained admittance and enrolled at N.C. State.

(CPP also asked the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the same data, but school officials said they don’t maintain county-by-county numbers and could not provide that information.)

Yancey, Madison and Polk hold the top three spots state-wide in percentage admitted per capita at N.C. State, with an additional four WNC counties in the top 10 — McDowell, Clay, Rutherford and Watauga.

Two nearby counties outside the CPP-defined 18-county WNC area, Ashe and Caldwell, are also in the top 10 for admission rate per capita to NCSU. The only central or eastern county in the top 10 for 2015 was Camden on the coast.

In all, 14 of 18 WNC counties landed in the top 50 percent in admissions per capita. Only Graham, Mitchell, Jackson and Swain counties ranked in the bottom half.

By comparison, Orange County, home of UNC, ranked 12th in the number of students admitted to NCSU per capita, while Wake, where NCSU is located, ranked only 19th. Wake is also the second largest county in the state. The largest, Mecklenburg, ranked 38th.

Small school advantage

Bigger high schools don’t necessarily mean a bigger advantage when it comes to college admissions, said Louis Hunt, senior vice provost for enrollment management and services at NC State.

A high school that has the population and resources to offer 20 advanced placement courses won’t necessarily produce a student who is more likely to gain admission to NCSU than a student from a high school that could only offer five advanced placement courses.

“When Carolina and State look, they look at ‘what did your school offer and did you take advantage of it?’” said Monica Lee, executive director of the McNair Educational Foundation in Rutherford County, a nonprofit group grounded in the Rutherford Public School System.

“Kids here take advantage of those opportunities because they are limited.”

Beyond that, both Lee and Suzanne Gavenus, counselor, college and career advisor at Mountain Heritage High School in Yancey County noted that smaller schools mean more opportunity for teachers to really get to know their students.

“They are in a school where they are probably getting more individual attention,” Lee said. “Kids aren’t falling through the cracks as easily as they would at a bigger school.”

Gavenus echoed that opinion and shared her experience in talking with students who had moved from larger, more urban counties to Yancey County.

“The kids feel safe, they feel like the teachers really care, and they say they feel like they’re learning more,” she said.

Holistic approach to admissions

Because of the way NCSU structures its admissions process, those students have just as much of a chance of NCSU taking them as students from larger urban areas, Hunt said. What’s more, because of the rural nature of many of the western counties, the programs offered at N.C. State may even be a bigger draw to WNC students.

Hunt told CPP that he considers the university’s agricultural and technical degrees to be among the most attractive to WNC students, who may return home to apply those skills to a career path locally.

N.C. State makes an effort to market those programs, including animal science, fishery and forestry, among others, to WNC’s rural counties, he said.

While N.C. State does not try to achieve specific enrollment numbers for each county, Hunt said they work to actively recruit in each county and take a “holistic” approach to the application process.

“Being a land-grant institution, and having the disciplines we do, it’s really important to us to have the entire state represented,” Hunt said.

“We’d like to enroll students from every county. We’re always disappointed if we don’t.”

N.C. State keeps data on each high school, looking at what percentage attend four-year colleges and what opportunities students have within their schools.

“Did an individual take advantage of the opportunities they had, and were they successful, matters to us,” Hunt said.

The university also looks at each student’s interest in a particular major. For example, if someone applies to study forestry, did that student have a job in that field while in high school?

Last, N.C. State looks at the type of obstacles a student may have overcome, and those are taken into consideration as well, Hunt noted. Students working to support families while completing high school are an example.

“We try to create a level playing field,” he said. “We find great students across the state, and we want that diversity.”

In Rutherford County, Lee said she is thrilled by the admissions numbers at N.C. State.

“All of our schools are low-income, rural high schools,” she said. “Our students are going to struggle. These numbers are really good.”

State and federal efforts in rural districts

Another factor contributing to student success in some WNC counties appears to be state and federal grants.

Three of the WNC counties topping the list in admissions per capita at NC State — Yancey, Madison and Rutherford — are part of the North Carolina New Schools/Breakthrough Learning Rural Innovative Schools initiative.

Through an initial federal grant for the U.S. Dept. of Education and additional private donations, the initiative has increased exposure for high school students to college-level courses. Students are able to take community college courses either at their local community college, on their own high school campus, or through online courses, according to information provided by North Carolina New Schools/Breakthrough Learning.

“This grant has opened up some community college access that wasn’t there before,” Gavenus said. “It’s a tactile, real-world experience. They take a class and see that it’s challenging, but manageable.”

In 2010, Lee said Rutherford County had the first student in North Carolina to earn her associate’s degree before her high school diploma with help from this program. Since then, numerous Rutherford County students have earned a year’s worth of college credits while still in high school, she added.

Several WNC counties also currently receive funding, or have received funding in the past through the federal GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) program, which is designed to increase both preparation and success for low-income students entering college through six-year grants that provide additional services in middle and high schools, according to U.S. Dept. of Education website. This program just began in Rutherford County, for example, but wouldn’t have affected last year’s senior class, Lee said.

Still more to do

While the numbers reflect positive results in so many WNC counties, they don’t necessarily reflect the challenges students from rural counties still face.

In Yancey County, Gavenus shared the story of last year’s valedictorian who turned down acceptance at Yale for a prestigious scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

For any student who has perhaps never traveled outside of his or her immediate geographic area, that kind of move to a large school in a larger city can be overwhelming, she said.

“He really would have felt outside his comfort zone there,” Gavenus said. “The size of the school can be a barrier.”

Funding is another barrier – one NC State addresses through offering as much financial aid as possible, said Hunt.


Swain County, one of the few WNC counties to rank on the lower end of admissions in 2015 at NCSU, with nine students applying and two accepted, has a large population of first-generation college-bound students as well as a high percentage of low-income students.

Barbara Sneed, counselor at Swain County High School, said, to her knowledge, three students from Swain High applied to NC State and two were accepted. The school does not track every application – students self-report – so numbers may not be completely accurate, she said. Other students in Swain County attend Cherokee High School and some attend Jackson Early College in Jackson County.

“We are a small town (in Bryson City) that does not have very much manufacturing and upward mobility in our area,” Sneed said. “We are poverty-stricken, so those that do attend college and receive a degree struggle to find employment in our area.”


Of the six WNC counties with the top acceptance per capita at NCSU, two had only a 33 percent to 34 percent actually enroll.

That doesn’t mean the students did not go to college, they may have selected another college. However, an increasing number of students are choosing to attend a two-year program at a community college and then applying those credits to transfer into a four-year college or university program, often for financial reasons.

Percentage of students by county who enrolled at N.C. State University after being admitted. (Source: N.C. State University)
Percentage of students by county who enrolled at N.C. State University after being admitted. Click to see full size. (Source: NCSU)

While 30 percent of Mountain Heritage High School’s 159 graduates in 2015 expressed plans to attend a four-year college, 44 percent planned instead to attend a two-year program, Gavenus said.

Oftentimes, it’s about the right fit for the student. The high cost of room and board at a major university with limited resources and financial aid can also sway many students to stick closer to home, at least initially.

With many low-income and first-generation college bound families concentrated in these counties, there are benefits to a college education from any school, say high school officials.

“They don’t all have to go to a big school,” Gavenus said. “And that’s OK.”

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Lea Hart is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

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