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A way to save money and help community college students

By Duke Cheston
Special to the Observer

Some students just aren’t ready for college. Recognizing that fact, the N.C. House has proposed a plan that could save taxpayers millions of dollars.

The North Carolina Guaranteed Admission Program (NC GAP) is a proposal in the House budget bill. If the Senate agrees to the program, it would send roughly 1,500 students who would otherwise be admitted to UNC schools – but just barely – to community colleges. Because taxpayer subsidies are much smaller at community colleges, that could save the state millions.

It could be good for the students, too. If the students successfully complete an associate’s degree at the community colleges, they will be allowed to enroll at the UNC school to which they were conditionally admitted (hence the “guaranteed admission”). And, of course, they would save substantial tuition as well.

The Pope Center has long argued that the UNC system should limit its enrollment, sending more students to community colleges. Doing so would save taxpayer money and keep students from racking up debt without getting a degree. While NC GAP is not designed to limit UNC enrollment, it would move in that direction, while helping the affected students succeed.

The proposal would remove $12.6 million in funding from the UNC system, and increase funding at community colleges by about $4.4 million. Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, the proposal’s author, said he and his advisors arrived at 1,500 students by taking 10 percent of the 15,000 students in each freshman class who, on average, do not complete a degree in six years. Those figures were calculated based on the UNC system’s 6-year graduation rate of about 60 percent.

Some UNC administrators have said a program like NC GAP would be difficult to organize quickly (it’s supposed to be implemented by the fall of 2014) and that it would be redundant. UNC has been raising minimum admission standards, which means that some students who in the past would have been accepted must go to community college if they are to enter college at all. In addition, UNC and the community colleges are reworking the articulation agreement between the two systems, making it easier to transfer credits from community colleges to UNC schools.

Raising admissions standards has indeed weeded out some below-par students. But the system’s six-year graduation rate suggests there are still plenty of students who should be in a community college rather than more-expensive four-year schools.

N.C. community college system president Scott Ralls told the Pope Center: “The clearer those pathways (to a four-year school) are, the more likely they [the students] are to succeed.” According to recent data, 81 percent of students entering community colleges plan to transfer to a school to earn a bachelor’s degree, but after six years only 11 percent of them actually do. Ralls thinks a program like NC GAP could help change that.

By adopting such a policy for its public colleges, North Carolina would accomplish three goals: save taxpayer money, keep students out of debt, and help some community college students succeed.

Duke Cheston is a writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.
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