Free community college offered in Richmond, Scotland counties

Free community college has been touted on the national scene, but now a college in North Carolina is carrying out the goal for students in two economically distressed counties.

Last week, Richmond Community College announced a plan to cover tuition and fees for many high school students in Richmond and Scotland counties. The program, dubbed RichmondCC Guarantee, promises two free years of college for students of public, private and home schools who have at least a 3.0 grade-point average and two college courses under their belts.

The guarantee starts next fall, and it’s designed for high-schoolers already in a free dual-enrollment program at the college. That program started in 2012 and now has more than 380 high school participants. Richmond Community College has campuses in Laurinburg and Hamlet, about 100 miles southwest of Raleigh.

It is the first program of its kind in North Carolina, but the concept of free community college is gaining momentum nationally.

President Barack Obama has pushed the idea, and Tennessee and Oregon have adopted free community college plans. Tennessee, the first to do it, will spend an estimated $34 million a year on the program, and students receive mentors and must complete community service as part of the package.

Free college sounds almost too good to be true when students hear about it, said Dale McInnis, president of Richmond Community College.

“We wanted to do something that would motivate and incentivize families and students and high schools – that if they put forth the effort and take advantage of the programs and the courses ... there’s a reward at the end of the rainbow,” McInnis said. “Putting the word ‘free’ attached to it made it more powerful.”

That message might resonate in one of the state’s most economically challenged areas. According to data released last week, Scotland County is tied for North Carolina’s highest unemployment rate, at 11.7 percent, more than twice the state average. Richmond County’s jobless rate is 8.7 percent.

“Morale, esteem in our communities is a fragile thing,” McInnis said. “You hear negatives all the time. We wanted to do something positive that’s going to demonstrate a commitment to education and a better workforce.”

Three-quarters of the college’s students already qualify for federal financial aid, and some also receive state aid. So it wasn’t all that difficult to close the gap for students whose costs wouldn’t be covered by other means, McInnis said.

Initially, the college will spend $50,000 to $100,000 a year on the guarantee, using proceeds from the campus bookstore, which is privately run by Follett. Policy dictates that bookstore funds must support students directly.

Students can expect to save $4,800 in tuition and fees over two years.

Jesse Hardee, 17, a senior at Richmond Senior High School, already has taken three community college classes and is enrolled in two more. He’s already decided he’s going for the RichmondCC Guarantee.

“It saves money, and it helps me get college courses out of the way,” said Hardee, who eventually wants to earn a master’s in nursing. “It gives me a big jump.”

Holli Hayes, 17, also a student at Richmond Senior High School, is considering staying close to home for college now. She wants to earn an associate’s degree in nursing.

A lot of her classmates don’t even dream of education beyond high school, she said.

“They just say, ‘I just can’t afford to go to college,’” Hayes said. “It’s sad because they want to go to college; they want to further their education so they’re able to work.”

She expects them to take Richmond Community College up on its guarantee.

McInnis hopes the promise might begin to change expectations and aspirations in Richmond and Scotland counties, so that people see college and career training as something for everyone – not just for honors students or the affluent.

“I guess the big thing we’re trying to push for here is hope,” he said. “When you have folks that have not had a lot of hope, providing a little bit sometimes is all it takes.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill