The Real Reason Chapel Hill Keeps Growing
By Matt Bailey
A while back, I read an opinion piece about how Chapel Hill was so much better back in the good old days. How Chapel Hill used to be smaller. How Chapel Hill used to have more charm. How all these new places for people to live have ruined our sense of place.
These sentiments aren’t merely one person’s opinion. Seems you only have to be in Chapel Hill for fifteen minutes before someone tells you how great it was back in some bygone era.
It’s true that Chapel Hill was a whole lot smaller years ago. In 1960, 12,573 lived here. Today, 59,568 do. However, have you ever stopped to ask yourself why Chapel Hill has grown so much?
The big reason nobody ever seems to mention is the fact that the University of North Carolina serves a whole lot more students now than it used to serve. In the early 1950s, UNC only had 6,800 students, a huge spike from the 4,400 students UNC served before the G.I. Bill helped so many World War II veterans earn college degrees.
Back in the early 1950s, only a handful of women went to UNC, mostly professor’s daughters. UNC didn’t become fully co-educational until 1963. No one who wasn’t Caucasian could attend, either. While UNC did admit their first African-American undergraduates in 1955, the university still had fewer than 100 African American undergraduates in 1968. UNC wasn’t truly open to students of color until 1981, a result of a consent decree in response to an NAACP lawsuit.
Today, UNC serves over 29,000 students, a far cry from the 6,800 students that went here back in those good old days people miss. This fall, Carolina welcomed 4,254 new undergraduate students to Chapel Hill. 60% of UNC’s first year students this year are women, 34% are non-Caucasians, and 17% will be the first person in their families to graduate from college.
The fact is, you can’t talk about Chapel Hill’s idyllic small-town past without talking about a time where far fewer citizens had access to a college education at the state’s flagship university.
At its heart, Chapel Hill is a company town. Fortunately, our company is the University of the People. If Chapel Hill is going to serve our role of helping UNC provide as many people as possible a world-class college education, our town is going to have to change — and yes — grow. Not only do today’s students need more housing, dining, shopping, entertainment and transportation options than last century’s students required, twenty-first century students want and need different things from their college town in order to have a rewarding college experience than past generations did.
Will we lose cherished landmarks from our memories along the way? Of course we will. For today’s 29,000+ students, however, these are the good old days. Instead of working so hard to bring back Chapel Hill’s past, I hope Chapel Hill’s leaders focus on making great memories for tomorrow’s UNC alumni.
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