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Plan To Reroute Students Through Community College Worries UNC Leaders

Central Piedmont Community College

A plan by state lawmakers to reroute lower-performing students otherwise bound for UNC schools through community college has garnered a lot of concern from university leaders. NC GAP is aimed at making it cheaper for students to get a college diploma. A recent report compiled by both systems found it would do that, but would also likely result in fewer students graduating with bachelor’s degrees. 

WFAE’s Lisa Worf joins All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey now:

MR: First, a little background. What exactly are lawmakers doing and why?

LW: Lawmakers want to find a way for students to graduate with less debt. They also want to help more students graduate within six years. And for those who don’t, their thinking is, “at least they’ll leave school with an associates’ degree.” So they asked the UNC and community college systems to study this. The joint report says a deferred admission program would save a student $1,750 in tuition and the state $8,000 per student. But that it would also likely mean fewer students graduating with bachelor’s degrees and that those students it’s most likely to hurt are rural students, low-income ones, and minorities. 

MR: Why does the study say it would have that negative effect? 

LW: The study says diverting lower-scoring students to community colleges would likely lengthen the time it takes for them to get a diploma, if they do even end up getting one. The report came to that conclusion partly by looking at students with grades just good enough to merit an acceptance to a UNC-system school.  These students either started at a UNC school in 2009 or applied to one, but first went to a community college and later transferred.  The six-year graduation rate among the transfer students was 11-percent compared to nearly 36-percent for those who spent their whole time at one UNC school.

MR: That seems really low.

LW: Yes, but there are some caveats to those numbers. The study includes only 270 transfer students....since those were the only ones that year to apply to a UNC school, but begin in community college, most closely mimicking NC GAP. Community colleges are quick to point this out, when you include all community college students transferring to UNC system schools, regardless of grades, about 68 percent graduate within four years of transferring. Also, those 2009 transfers, took place before some big changes, including making it easier to transfer credits between the two systems. 

MW: How would schools identify who should take the community college route?

LW: One way is to raise the minimum GPA requirement for acceptance at any UNC school. The NC GAP program would be offered to those who fall just below it. In past years, most of the students falling into this category were African American, from low-income families and about a third of the students were from rural counties. This would be a system-wide approach. So schools like Chapel Hill and NC State wouldn’t see such big dips in their enrollment as many of the state’s historically black universities that focus on nurturing first-generation college students. 

MW: And what’s the alternative?

LW: You say to the lowest-scoring students that just make the cut at each school, you need to go to community college first. The concern here is you just redistribute students among the campuses and possibly lose good students to out-of-state schools. 

MR: What do UNC leaders think of making some students take a community college detour? 

LW: Many board members don’t like it.  At the Board of Governor’s meeting earlier this month, board member Champ Mitchell called it a well-intentioned effort, but said NC GAP is the wrong way to go about it. 

MITCHELL: This is going to gut some of our HBCUs if we apply it on a system-wide, rather than campus by campus.  If we apply it campus by campus, it’s going to throw out some of the best kids we have that we want to keep in this state.   

LW: UNC System President Margaret Spellings told the board NC GAP has unintended consequences, limits consumer choice and empowerment and should be delayed.   

MR: And what do community college leaders think about the program?

LW: Most of the changes would be at the UNC system, so you could say community colleges have less skin in the game. They say on their side of things, they have the capacity to make the program happen starting with admissions for the 2017-18 year. 

MR: When will this program go into effect?

LW: NC GAP is state law. If UNC system leaders can’t convince state lawmakers to delay or change the program, some UNC students may start out in community college beginning the fall of 2017.   

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.
Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.