These programs push viable – and cheaper – paths to NC State or UNC degrees

N.C. State has a new plan to admit more graduates from eight regional community colleges, widening the pipeline of students on a more affordable path of higher education.

This fall, about 120 students will start on a community college campus, with an automatic acceptance later at N.C. State University. Once they earn a two-year associate's degree, they can transfer, having had help along the way from NCSU advisers.

The participating community colleges, all within 60 miles of Raleigh, are: Durham Tech and Wake Tech, as well as Alamance, Central Carolina, Johnston, Nash, Vance-Granville and Wilson community colleges.

The program is targeted to low- and moderate-income students from families with income of about $50,000 or less. Students are advised to maintain a 3.0 grade point average in community college to make the jump, said Louis Hunt, N.C. State's senior vice provost of enrollment management and services.

"I think people are seeing this as a very viable pathway," Hunt said. "We're really seeing that shift now. The community college is a great way to save money."

The number of students transferring from community colleges to the UNC system is on the rise, from 7,905 in fall of 2015 to 10,264 in fall of 2016. That trend is likely to continue as the university system pursues a goal of educating more low-income and rural students, and the community college system seeks to boost its enrollment numbers.

Transferring credits and navigating admissions can be a headache for students, but a number of university-community college partnerships have made that process easier in recent years.

For example, N.C. Central University in Durham recently announced a deal with Wake Tech to admit students into its hospitality and tourism administration program. It already had a dual enrollment program with Durham Tech.

UNC-Chapel Hill started its Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program, or C-STEP, 12 years ago and has graduated about 900 students so far. The university has 10 community college partners — Durham Tech, Fayetteville Tech and Wake Tech, as well as Alamance, Cape Fear, Carteret, Central Carolina, Craven, Robeson and Sandhills community colleges.

'Incredible students'

Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at UNC, said the university will add more partners and double the students in the next five years. The program is also geared to moderate-income students, from families with incomes of $70,000 and below. A 3.2 grade point average is required.

"The thing we found really quickly is that we've gotten incredible students through this program," Farmer said, "I mean, just incredible people who come here by a different path."

The students are typically nontraditional in age and background. Some are veterans.

"They've really enriched the experience of everybody around them," Farmer said.

Take Chrisa Walters, a rising senior at UNC, where she's majoring in exercise and sports science. She jokingly calls herself an "extra extra nontraditional student." Walters is a 48-year-old grandmother with two part-time jobs. She began her studies at Cape Fear Community College before earning an associate's degree from Durham Tech.

She's now living a dream she had since 1988, when she was first admitted to UNC upon high school graduation in Laurinburg. The daughter of parents who did not go to college, she was feeling intimidated by the idea of UNC. She got married and had three sons instead of going to college.

When her marriage ended, she enrolled at Cape Fear with a plan to pursue training in medical stenography — a few steps away from her childhood goal of becoming a doctor. When she heard about C-STEP through an email with the subject line "Are you dreaming Carolina blue?" she jumped at the opportunity.

"Here I am," she said in an interview. "Twenty-nine years later, I finally made it."

When she was at Durham Tech, an adviser there worked closely with UNC advisers, to ensure she was taking the right classes both for her associate's degree and the general education requirements at the university. She had phone calls, video chats with UNC advisers and went to campus for meetings and orientation.

The goal, Farmer said, is to lessen the phenomenon known as "transfer shock." Graduation rates for C-STEP students are slightly lower than other UNC students, he said, mostly in science majors. Sometimes transfer science majors will take a semester or two longer to finish.

"It's been a tremendous help to me to have C-STEP because of the support and guidance," Walters said. "It's a bridge to help navigate around campus, to find the resources that you need to be successful, to network with the correct people, other like-minded students."

Walters plans to work as a personal trainer but her ultimate goal is to go to graduate school to become a physician assistant.

'Ready to rock'

For Michael Cavenaugh, the journey from community college to N.C. State was not a straight one. First he pursued criminal justice studies at Sampson Community College, where he went through law enforcement basic training. He had worked three years at a law firm and wanted to become a police officer.

Cavenaugh's goals changed when his daughter was born and he wanted a more stable financial future. He went to Johnston Community College, where he basically had to start all over to earn an associate's degree in science.

He had his eye on engineering at NCSU. Cavenaugh had earned all A's and one B at Johnston. He received a Goodnight Scholarship at N.C. State, a full ride. He will graduate in December of next year with a civil engineering degree. He's interested in water management and transportation.

Making the change from community college to a university has definite up sides, Cavenaugh said.

"You're still getting a quality education," he said, "and it's a fraction of the price."

Looking back, he said, it was the best path for him.

"Where I was in my life, coming out of high school, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do, I would be scared to commit that much time and money into going straight to the university," he said.

The transfer option may not be suited to everyone, however, he added.

"Adjusting is pretty challenging, and you're jumping into the meat and potatoes of the degree," he said. "You're not starting here with some easy buffer classes like your first year to help your GPA, and building it over the four years. You're just kind of jumping into the heart of your degree. You've got to be ready to rock."

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill
Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer