Students in North Carolina can get a jump on their future by enrolling in free community college courses while in high school, under a plan to be announced today by Gov. Bev Perdue.
The initiative, called Career & College Promise, consolidates some older programs and gives eligible students focused options for earning credits toward a college degree or a certificate for a technical job.
Perdue will travel across the state today to highlight the program, starting at Hillside High School in Durham then stopping at schools in Greensboro and Charlotte.
In an interview Wednesday, Perdue said the goal is to keep students on track with a plan for future success.
"As they graduate high school, they'll be more prepared for life after high school, whether it means college credit for some and job training for others," she said. "And for some, it would be actual certification so they can leave high school with a certificate or licensure that allows them to go immediately into the workforce."
The program starts in January. It is free to eligible students with a "B" average who show that they're ready for college work.
High school juniors and seniors can choose a technical career path or a college transfer path that would allow them to earn about a year and half worth of credit toward a degree. A third option is attending an early college high school, which blends high school and community college courses, allowing students to make a seamless transition to college.
North Carolina has been a national leader in establishing early college high schools. In 2010-11, nearly 12,000 students were enrolled in these innovative schools.
For years, the state also has allowed high school students to take free community college courses through such programs as Learn & Earn Online. More than 19,000 students participated in dual enrollment programs last year.
But too often, students chose courses without a clear path toward a degree. Sometimes, their credits would not transfer to a four-year university because they did not take the courses they needed.
Career & College Promise will offer an educational experience that is more meaningful, said Scott Ralls, president of North Carolina's community college system.
No 'bubblegum cards'
Depending on their ultimate career goals, students will have to take a set of courses for that particular pathway, Ralls said, rather than collecting course credits "like bubblegum cards."
"We think that's going to provide a more focused opportunity for students," he said. "It provides more structure."
Community colleges in the Triangle have seen significant crowding since the recession first hit, as students have returned to school to upgrade skills. Ralls said it's possible that high school students won't be able to get all of the courses they need. But at the same time, the new program should be more efficient overall.
"The place that we really can't afford to have inefficiency anymore is, for example, students taking credits that they don't need for their degree," Ralls said. "Too often, we've had that in the past."
Students who aren't interested in a four-year college experience can pursue technical training so they can graduate from high school ready for a job.
"It addresses some of the realities of the workforce in America," Perdue said. "For the middle skills worker, it's very apparent that we need students who are more focused, who have deeper science and math and reading capacity. ... I think the career part is really, really important."
The program will allow Perdue to partially live up to her 2008 campaign promise for free community college. She said the bad economy had slowed down her progress on that goal.
The new program, she said, has bipartisan support. Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican who is co-chairman of the education committee in the legislature, said there is agreement on the approach.
The key will be executing the program well, with community colleges working closely with high schools and universities on the courses and credits. Success will hinge on making students aware of what's available, Tillman said.
"It should be a win, win," he said. "It should save some time and money for kids getting on the right track, graduating on time and getting out of college."
Perdue said others are watching North Carolina's experiment.
"We met (Tuesday) with some foundations and there is great national interest in what we're doing," she said. "This will become transformational for the entire country."