Community colleges in North Carolina could get state support for summer courses and for student scholarships under proposals being considered in the legislature.
The state now only funds certain types of community college classes on a year-round basis – remedial education, health care courses, technical education and classes focused on STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
But a House bill would add year-round funding for general education courses that transfer to a four-year university. Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget also would provide summer funding for community colleges.
There’s no estimate on how much the year-round extension would cost taxpayers in future years, but McCrory’s budget director, Lee Roberts, called it a “significant beneficial funding change” for the colleges.
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Meanwhile, another House bill would create full scholarships for high-achieving students who enroll in the community college system for two years. The bill calls for spending $2 million in 2016-17 and $3.5 million in 2017-18 on the new scholarships.
“That was a surprise to us,” said Wake Tech Community College President Stephen Scott. “It’s a welcome one. I think it would be a great way to recruit top students to the community college system.”
The proposals would have to make their way through the legislature and the budgeting process. If they pass, they could eventually draw students to community colleges instead of the UNC system.
Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, is a sponsor of the summer funding bill. He said more UNC system students are likely to take lower-cost classes in the community college system in the summer. He said the average annual state subsidy for a community college student is about $5,000, compared to $13,000 for a university system student.
“The more we can shift the education to the community colleges, the state saves money, the parents save money and the students get out quicker,” Stam said.
But he conceded that the community college classes won’t appeal to some university students.
“For the student who wants to spend as much time at Chapel Hill drinking beer and watching football and basketball, it might not be as attractive,” Stam said. “This is for the serious students, the industrious students.”
Community college enrollment has fallen recently as the economy has picked up. Enrollment declined 1.6 percent this year from projections, which will mean a budget reduction of $3 million for the system in the next budget year. Nationally, community college enrollment dropped 2.7 percent last spring, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Summer support from the state would undoubtedly raise enrollment numbers and lead to more money for North Carolina’s 58 community colleges.
It would also help address a phenomenon known as “summer melt,” in which students fade out, get behind or give up, said Scott Ralls, president of the state’s community college system.
The average age of a community college student in North Carolina is 28, and many are ramping up their training and credentials in hopes of a better job. They’re not looking to take the summer off or land a lifeguarding job, Ralls said, like a typical undergraduate at a four-year college. A summer gap just postpones their progress.
“Not taking courses in the summer,” Ralls said, “can cause them to drop out or not complete.”
Some colleges try to stretch their funding to be able to offer the most in-demand classes in summer, Ralls said.
The state does not appropriate money for summer school at the state’s four-year universities, but the UNC system is requesting that the legislature allow campuses to keep receipts from summer school tuition.
Possible salary boost
A by-product of community college summer funding would be a salary boost for faculty, who would move to 12-month contracts. Community college officials say their faculty are underpaid, compared to others across the country. North Carolina ranks 11th among 16 Southern and Atlantic seaboard states in community college faculty salaries, according to recent data from the Southern Regional Education Board. The average salary was $47,410 in 2013-14, according to the SREB.
Overall, Ralls said, community colleges that are in full swing year-round would allow students more flexibility to start their studies any time. That notion is more in line with the way many students learn today, with access to online courses and instruction when it meets their schedules. More than one-third of North Carolina community college students take some courses by distance education.
Ultimately, Ralls said, students would move through the pipeline more quickly and end up in the workforce sooner. It might also boost graduation and completion rates. Forty-one percent of students who entered the system in 2004 had completed their degree or credential within six years. Many community college students attend on a part-time basis and can quickly get off track if they lose momentum in the summer.
“It can be game changing for us because it allows us to get out of our traditional mindset,” Ralls said. “It makes all the sense in the world for us to be in full production year round.”