Some call them the best years of their lives. Some call them the hardest. Some, especially more recently, call them the most expensive and they come out with a hefty pile of debts. No matter what you call them, for those who attend, the college years are memorable. College is an experience that can lead to a lifelong career, not to mention lifelong friendships, and now, despite the climbing costs of higher education, more and more people are going to college.
NC State is one of those universities that students from all over the United States—and other countries—really want to get into. In 2017, NC State was ranked by Money Magazine as the best college for your money in North Carolina and No. 8 in value among public universities by U.S. News & World Report; the Wolfpack has many reasons to be proud. We talked to NC State alumni from decades past about their college experiences, as well as incoming freshmen, to see how the celebrated university, and college life in general, have changed.
When Michael Lowder enrolled at NC State in the 1970s, his tuition cost, roughly, a mere $250 per semester—a staggeringly low fee compared to the tuition rates for this year’s freshmen, which ranged from $4,550 for full-time, in-state undergraduates to $14,609 for those from out of state. “The price of going to school [now] is just outrageous,” Lowder, now Executive Director of Artspolsure, says. Presumably, the increased cost of tuition boils down to higher demand for degrees and the competition that comes with it. This year, more than 30,000 students applied to NC State, while fewer than half were admitted. Freshman Cole Stewart was one of the lucky few to be accepted. An in-state student who’s lived in Raleigh for 18 years, Stewart says he estimates his bill this year, all told, is in the neighborhood of $25,000, including tuition, room and board and an on-campus meal plan.
While tuition rates and other fees continue to skyrocket, it’s possible that textbook costs have actually decreased thanks to online resources we have available to us now that our predecessors lacked. Whereas before, students could only buy textbooks from the campus store at whatever prices it charged, now, students can rent books, buy used copies on Amazon or find e-book versions for significantly less money.
While technology can certainly have its downsides, it’s also a vital asset to today’s college students. Stewart relies on his iPhone to navigate campus and utilizes several NC State-provided apps—including TransLoc for taking the bus to Centennial Campus, where most of his engineering classes are held—and to buy food. “All my classes [on Centennial] are pretty early in the morning, so I can just order something from the main campus and by the time I’m over there, I can walk in, pick it up and go to class. It’s really nice,” he says. Meanwhile, Christine Johnson, who graduated from NC State in 1997, remembers the FedEx-Kinkos on Hillsborough Street as being the only place you could go to use the computer in the middle of the night (dorms didn’t have their own computers and the computer labs closed in the evenings; now, D.H. Hill library is open 24/7). Technology has also impacted classes and curriculums. Nowadays, students can take many of their classes online and courses for subjects like design, engineering and architecture have changed due to enhanced programming and resources. Nonetheless, class sizes remain pretty much the same, with introductory courses taking place in massive lecture halls with anywhere from 100 to 300 students, while major-focused classes count between 10 and 30 students. Outside of class, joining clubs and extracurriculars, including the Greek system, are as popular as ever, though there are now even more fraternities and sororities than there once were.
One thing nearly all of the alumni we spoke to say they missed out on the most was having air conditioning in their dorm rooms. Johnson, who lived in Bowen Hall during her freshman year and Welch Hall during her sophomore year, recalls putting a fan blowing indoors in one window and another blowing outdoors in a second window to keep her room cool. “I don’t know how we survived,” she says. Both Bowen and Welch were women-only dorms; Welch is now the only all-female residence hall on campus. When Tom Stafford was working towards his master’s degree at NC State from 1964 to 1966, he says the campus was largely all male. Aside from air conditioning, many of NC State’s dorms have been renovated in past years to include suite-style living, lounges with TVs and markets. “The living conditions for students today are extraordinary,” Stafford, the university’s former Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs for 30 years, says. “I would say that they’re very lucky and very spoiled.”
Eating on campus has also become something of a luxury, with three dining halls available, plus a food court, various restaurants, cafes and convenience stores. In the past, NC State offered only one dining hall for students to purchase meals. Both Stewart and fellow freshman Nixon Kramer say they opted for the Everyday Plan—at $2,095 per semester, it’s the most popular student dining option, consisting of unlimited dining hall swipes and 12 meal credits per week. So far, Stewart has yet to use all 12 meal credits in one week. “It sounds like it wouldn’t be that much, but I find it pretty hard to use all the meal credits,” he says. While Stewart says the food at the dining hall is pretty good, smoothies are his go-to option, along with Chick-fil-A from the Atrium food court beside D.H. Hill Library. For Johnson, her freshman year consisted of a lot of cereal for dinner, along with Taco Bell, which once had a location in the Talley Student Union. “I don’t remember anything outstanding,” she says of campus dining. “Everything is much nicer now than it used to be.”
NC State’s campus has also seen big changes over the years, especially with the development of Centennial. Before it was established in 1984, the Centennial property consisted of woods where Lowder and his friends would go hiking. During Johnson’s time at NC State in the mid-’90s, Centennial campus consisted only of the College of Textiles. Now, Centennial also houses the College of Engineering as well as student apartments, research centers, corporate buildings, dining facilities and the world-class Hunt Library. “I still get lost over there,” Lowder says. The Main Campus has undergone several changes of its own. Talley Student Union underwent renovations beginning in the summer of 2011 and is now the central hub for student life, with the additions of a campus bookstore, market, lounge areas and several offices, cafes and eateries. During Lowder’s college days, the student union was located in a wing off of D.H. Hill Library. Another significant improvement to Main Campus is Reynolds Coliseum, which reopened in 2016 with a renovated exterior, basketball court and the new NC State Athletic Hall of Fame. The Wolfpack men’s basketball team returned to the stadium in the spring of 2016, although most of this year’s games will continue to be played at PNC Arena.
Both Johnson and Laura Bunn, who also graduated from NC State in 1997 and is now the Triangle market president at Capital Bank, say they have fond memories of attending basketball games at Reynolds in the mid-’90s. Johnson recalls camping in tents overnight in order to secure tickets to games the next morning. “Basketball games at Reynolds were awesome,” she says.
The Social Side
For many, the social aspect of college is equally as important as the academics. While NC State’s and Raleigh’s social scene has definitely changed, students, then and now, find fun ways to spend time with their friends outside of class. For Lowder, in the mid-’70s, it was all about hitting up the bars on Hillsborough Street, the main drag for students venturing off of campus. Lowder says he frequented Players’ Retreat—still a popular spot among students and alums for grabbing drinks today—the now-shuttered Western Lanes bowling alley and Sadlacks, a hangout formerly located in the Aloft space that was known for its live music and outdoor patio. During Marc Primanti’s time at State in the mid-’90s, he frequented local spots including The Cantina, a bar called Five-O, Colorado’s and The Big Bad Wolf—one of his favorite bars on Hillsborough Street—all of which are now closed. Attending sporting events in the past was as popular a pastime as it is today and students are still instilled with the same levels of Wolfpack pride. Stewart attended his first Wolfpack football game earlier this season and says he enjoyed soaking up all the school spirit in the student section.
Despite lacking luxurious dorm rooms, state-of-the-art facilities and diverse dining options, the NC State alumni we spoke to looked back at their college days with fondness. Several still keep in touch with their college friends, watch football games at Carter Finley, drop by campus or grab beers at their old stomping grounds. They attribute their time at NC State to where they are in their lives and careers today. “I like to say, I spent seven of the best years of my life at NC State,” says Lowder, who taught on campus after he graduated. And while costs have risen in recent years with all the new campus amenities, and the fierce admissions competition, there’s a lot that this year’s freshmen have to be excited about. Both Kramer and Stewart are looking forward to joining clubs, supporting the Wolfpack at football games and ultimately earning degrees. Stewart says he already knows his way around both Centennial and Main Campuses and intends to keep his air conditioning bottomed out until summer is over.